Launch of Largest Stem Cell Unit in Southern Africa

Advanced stem cell transplantation done right here in SA

Thursday, August 5 2010

Many patients who could benefit from life-saving stem cell transplantation are not receiving the treatment because people, and even doctors, do not realise that it can be undertaken right here in South Africa.

This is according to Dr Jackie Thomson who heads up the Albert Alberts Haemopoitic Stem Cell Transplant Unit at the Netcare Pretoria East Hospital, which was launched last night. Dr Thomson says that there are many misconceptions about stem cell transplantation, one of which is that it cannot be done in this country. Some patients therefore travel overseas for the treatment when in fact we have one or two outstanding treatment centres here in South Africa.

Dr Thomson explains that haemopoitic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) is the transplantation of blood stem cells from blood or bone marrow in the case of bone marrow transplantation. It is used for the treatment of diseases of the blood, bone marrow and certain cancers.

The Albert Alberts Haemopoitic Stem Cell Transplant Unit at the Netcare Pretoria East Hospital is the largest centre of its kind in Africa and completes 80 transplants a year, more than any other facility on the continent. According to Dr Thomson it has state-of-the-art equipment and facilities to rival those found anywhere else in the world. Clinical Haematologist Dr David Brittain and Paediatric Oncologist Dr David Reynders have along with Dr Thomson been instrumental in the development of the unit.

The newly launched facility boasts 30 single private rooms, all in an isolation ward, which is vital to the protection of transplant patients whose immune systems are weak after transplantation. The unit is supported by a stem cell laboratory and cryopreservation facility.

‘Our staff and doctors are among the best in the field and we are the only unit that offers treatment to both children and adults,’ points out Dr Thomson. ‘We are a one-of-a-kind centre of excellence for the whole of the southern African region and treat patients from right around the sub-continent.’

According to Dr Thomson the unit’s performance is benchmarked against the performance of similar centres around the world and its outcomes are second to none.

‘We report to the European Group for Blood and Marrow Transplantation as well as the Centre for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research, and can say that the unit is complying with international standards every step of the way including with donor care, stem cell manipulation and stem cell transplant. We do as many transplants as some of the larger centres in Europe, which is remarkable if you consider that the unit is only four years old.’

She says that the majority of transplants undertaken at the unit are with stem cells from unrelated donors, but a few are from relatives. Most are from international donors from donor registries. The unit has performed stem cell transplants with donors from France, Germany, the UK and the USA.

Netcare CEO Dr Richard Friedland, said at the launch of the unit that Netcare was grateful to Dr Jackie Thomson and her team for their hard work over the past four years of the unit’s existence. ‘In that short period of time, the team’s hard work had turned the facility into the leading haemopoitic stem cell transplant unit in the country.

‘Significant advances have been made in stem cell transplantation over the last ten years,’ continued Dr Friedland. ‘It has become a life saving procedure for those individuals who have had the misfortune to contract diseases such as leukaemia and other blood disorders. At Netcare we wanted to make this life-saving procedure available to more South Africans and see the unit as an investment in our patients and the people of South Africa.

‘High patient occupancy rates at this centre are showing that there is a great need for it in Gauteng, and a demand for its services.’

Asked what kinds of conditions the unit handles, Dr Thomson said that haemopoitic stem cell transplantation is often used as therapy to eliminate blood diseases that infiltrate the bone marrow such as leukaemia or to correct congenital immunodeficiency disorders. The unit therefore mostly treats blood disorders, lymph cancers and also metabolic disorders. Other conditions treated include sickle-cell disease, myelodysplastic syndrome, Ewing’s Sarcoma, Hodgkin’s disease and others.

More recently haemopoitic stem cell transplantation has been used to allow cancer patients to receive higher doses of chemotherapy than the bone marrow is normally able to tolerate. It can thus be used to treat all kinds of cancer.

E Donnall Thomas pioneered stem cell transplantation work in the 1950s through to the 1970s. The first successful human bone marrow transplants were performed in the 1960s. They were characterised by high morbidity and mortality.

Dr Thomson says that some patients and indeed doctors mistakenly believe that the procedure is still very dangerous. This may have been true during the early days of transplants, but today the world’s leading centres, such as the Netcare Pretoria East Hospital Albert Alberts Haemopoitic Stem Cell Transplant Unit, achieve outstanding outcomes.

‘Obviously outcomes are not as good when the patients being treated are elderly, sickly and are suffering from co-morbid conditions, but for the younger, healthier patients the risks are fairly minimal,’ she says. She does warn, however, that patients and doctors should choose the right facility for the procedure.

‘This procedure is truly life-saving for patients who qualify for it,’ she points out. ‘They will die without it and should have no qualms about having it if they need it. The procedure is a great step forward in medicine and today offers real hope to patients suffering blood disorders.’


Issued by : Martina Nicholson Associates (MNA) on behalf of Netcare Pretoria East Hospital
Contact : Martina Nicholson or Graeme Swinney
Telephone : (011) 469 3016
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