Medicine has advanced to such
an extent in recent years that leukaemia can now usually be successfully
treated and is no longer such a ‘dread disease’. So says Dr Jackie Thomson, a
clinical haematologist who heads up the Alberts Cellular Therapy unit at the
Netcare Pretoria East Hospital.
According to Dr Thomson, the survival rate for
acute lymphocytic leukaemia – the most common childhood cancer – has improved
from 3% to approximately 90% over the last 40 years, when treated at centres
that provide the appropriate highly specialised treatment.
When 17-year-old Mahomed Ishmail’s parents
were told seven years ago that their son had acute myeloid leukaemia, they were
utterly distraught. “As far as they knew leukaemia was a deadly cancer and were
understandably terrified when I informed them of their son’s diagnosis,” says
Dr Thomson. However, Mahomed, whose real name has been changed to protect his
privacy, is today a healthy young man.
According to Dr Thomson, who was speaking
during the Bone Marrow Donation and Leukaemia Awareness period which ran from
15 August to 15 October, each leukaemia case is unique, as is the prognosis for
each patient but with the necessary technology and care, patients such as
Mahomed can actually be cured. New drugs and treatments
“New drugs and treatments are now available to
fight the disease. For example, gene testing enables us to target our treatment
and determine the most appropriate treatment protocols. Bone marrow
transplantation, which helps remove cancer cells from a patient’s system, is
usually used as part of the treatment protocol in leukaemia cases,” Dr Thomson
The Alberts Cellular Therapy unit specialises
in bone marrow transplantation. In fact, more bone marrow transplants are done
yearly at this facility than at any other centre on the African continent. Dr
Thomson notes that the world class unit with its state-of-the-art equipment has
recently been inspected by the JACIE, the Joint Accreditation Committee founded
by the European Group for Blood and Marrow Transplantation (EMBT) and the
International Society for Cellular Therapy (ISCT) and that only a few minor
matters need to be addressed for the unit to obtain accreditation.
“The first successful human bone marrow
transplants were performed in the 1960s. Unfortunately the success rate was not
so high. Significant advances have been made since then and bone marrow
transplantation has truly become a life-saving procedure,” Dr Thomson
says some patients and even doctors believe that the bone marrow transplant
procedure is still very dangerous. However, centres that specialise in the
treatment of leukaemia and other blood disorders, such as the Alberts Cellular
Therapy unit, achieve good outcomes.
Haemopoitic stem cell transplantation
Haemopoitic stem cell transplantation (HSCT)
is the transplantation of blood stem cells from blood or bone marrow in the
case of bone marrow transplantation. HSCT is used to treat a range of blood
disorders, lymph cancers and metabolic disorders. Besides leukaemia, conditions
that can be treated include sickle-cell disease, myelodysplastic syndrome,
Ewing’s Sarcoma, Hodgkin’s disease and others.
Head of Oncology at Netcare, Noeleen
Phillipson, says while the word "leukaemia" continues to inspire fear in most
people, it is in fact a highly treatable disease today. The latest technology
and drugs, together with comprehensive people-centric care such as provided at
Netcare oncology facilities, offer new hope to patients who suffer from the
“Leukaemia treatment centres such as Netcare
Pretoria East Hospital and the Alberts Cellular Therapy unit are critical
investments in the fight against cancer,” Phillipson concludes.