Treating Lymphoma with Cord Blood

Over the past several decades, cord blood therapy has become a valuable treatment option for patients with Hodgkin’s and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Researchers are finding new ways to fight against this deadly cancer using cord blood, with the number of successful transplants – and healthy patients – growing every year.

What is lymphoma?

Lymphoma is a cancer located in the lymphatic system. This organ system fights off diseases, and is a crucial part of our immune system. The cancer may affect the lymph nodes, thymus glands, bone marrow and more. While there are several different types of lymphoma, treatments are usually consistent – chemotherapy, radiation therapy, medications and stem cell therapy.

While doctors are unsure what exactly causes lymphoma, the disease occurs when body’s cell structure mutates. Over time, this may lead to oversized cells that put the body’s system out of balance, or tumors developing from excessive cells.

There are two major types of lymphoma:

  • Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Both disease types react to treatment differently, so doctors must study understand the type of cancer before beginning therapy.

Hodgkin’s disease negatively affects the lymph system, an important part of the body’s immune system that fights off infection and pushes fluid throughout the body. B cells, located in lymphoid tissue, normally fight off dangerous bacteria. However, when a patient has Hodgkin’s lymphoma, these cells don’t regenerate. Instead, they grow to unhealthy levels and crowd other cells in the lymph system. Since this network runs through the entire body, Hodgkin’s can form almost anywhere, which makes treatment particularly difficult.

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma occurs when the body produces too many white blood cells – called lymphocytes. When these cells don’t die, they grow and crowd the lymph nodes, leading to swelling. Over time, these cancerous cells spread into other areas inside the body.

Symptoms of lymphoma

Common symptoms for lymphoma include:

  • Swelling in the neck, arms or groin
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fevers
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of energy
  • Chills
  • Itching

Stem cells and lymphoma

Transplants using cord blood stem cells may be an alternative to traditional lymphoma treatments, which use bone marrow cells. Since cord blood doesn’t require an exact match – “mismatched” donors are just as effective. Patients with a mixed ethnic background benefit the most from cord blood transplants, since cells used in these treatments are more versatile than alternative bone marrow cells.

While the exact cause of lymphoma is currently unknown, older patients are at much greater risk. Infections, autoimmune diseases, toxic chemicals and genetics may all increase chances for lymphoma.

Stem cell therapy

While stem cell treatments for lymphoma are still in their infancy, more researchers are looking toward cord blood and bone marrow treatments. The number of stem cell transplants grows every year.

Doctors start treatment with chemotherapy to kill cancerous cells, and often use radiation therapy to reduce the amount of cancer in the body. However, these treatments also destroy bone marrow cells, so doctors administer new, healthy stem cells into the body. These transplanted cells travel to injured areas, repairing damage and generating new blood cells.

Doctors also use lower doses of chemotherapy in combination with transplanted cells to fight off cancerous cells. This “mini-transplant” (non-myeloablative transplant) increases the effectiveness of the body’s natural immune system, and works together with the patient’s body to fight off cancer.

However, the biggest challenge for doctors is the exact matching required by bone marrow transplants – this is where cord blood stem cells come in. Transplanted cells from cord blood don’t require an exact transplant, and are just as effective as bone marrow transplants.

While clinical trials are still testing new cord blood therapies, early results are promising. Researchers state cord blood is just as effective as bone marrow, but with a smaller chance of dangerous side effects – like acute graft-versus-host disease. This condition causes transplanted cells to attack the host, and may be fatal. Patients using cord blood have a smaller chance of suffering dangerous side effects compared to bone marrow transplants.

After treatment

Medical staff will monitor patients weeks, and even months, after treatment. They check for healthy blood cell count, and must remain on the lookout for infections. Transplants often increase chances for major and minor infections – even months after treatment.

Read more about the benefits of cord blood.