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 explains.
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 adds.
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 disease.
“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.