A forty-three-year old man from Sussex, England, whose life was saved by cord blood donated by a mother and newborn baby he will never know said he will always feel grateful to them.

Philip Meehan was 40 when he discovered he had leukemia. He found out after a week’s walking holiday in the Lake District in 2007; he told the press that as a self-employed person the week’s break was a rare chance to recharge batteries after a hectic year working at home and abroad.

During his holiday Meehan felt tired and out of breath, something he put down to “being a bit fat, forty and far from fit”; but a week after he got back home he still felt exhausted so he went to his GP. The doctor tested his blood and told him he should go down to the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton for some more tests.

Further tests showed that Meehan had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia with a genetic complication known as “Philadelphia Chromosome abnormality”. He was told his only chance of survival was to start an 8-month course of chemotherapy straight away. However, the doctors told him that while the chemo would eradicate the leukemia, it would most likely return in the future, and a bone marrow transplant was his only chance of long term survival.

The problem was, Meehan was an only child, there were no siblings to test for a match, and they couldn’t find a “living” donor.

“Things weren’t looking too good,” said Meehan.

That was until someone from King’s College Hospital in London contacted him and told him about a new procedure that is more commonly performed in children although more and more adults are also benefitting: transplanting stem cells from umbilical cord blood.

Meehan transferred to King’s College Hospital in September 2008 and received his life-saving cord blood transplant. Describing the procedure as “pain-free”, he said:

“It took twenty minutes and was performed by two nurses whilst I had a cup of tea, a bowl of ice-cream and watched telly!”

He then had to wait another month to find out his bone marrow had started to regenerate. He said he was able to go home within six weeks.

Over the following 12 months, Meehan gradually regained his strength and fitness. He said he is now virtually off all his medication and just has the occasional blood test. While he would not describe himself as “cured”, he said his bone marrow is “now operating at 100%, with NO signs of the leukaemia returning”.

According to BBC News, Meehan is trying to raise the profile of blood cord collection by lobbying MPs and helping the Anthony Nolan Trust, the organization that found him the matching cord blood.

He said he thought he knew a lot about modern medicine, but had imagined bone marrow transplant as being like what Keanu Reeves in the film “The Matrix” underwent, with tubes coming out from his spine and other parts of his body. But bone marrow transplantation is a bit of a “misnomer”, said Meehan, since it doesn’t really involve bones, marrow or transplantation. He describes it as a “simple blood transfusion”, rather like giving blood.

In the case of transplanting cord blood stem cells, “the process is even simpler”, said Meehan. The blood is drained from an umbilical cord discarded during a normal birth and harvested for stem cells that are then injected into the patient. The stem cells are the same ones that helped to “grow” the baby while it was in its mother’s womb, he explained, and when they enter the patient’s bones they start to grow “brand new bone marrow from scratch”.

Professor Ghulam Mufti, a haemato-oncology consultant who is also director of pathology at King’s College Hospital, told the BBC that cord cells were a “fantastic resource” that “go on to create a whole range of different cells in the blood or the immune system”.

They find their way into the bone marrow of the person who needs new bone marrow cells and start making new healthy cells to replace to damaged ones, he added, explaining that this makes cord blood:

“A viable alternative to bone marrow transplants for patients who either cannot find a marrow donor match or in whom a previous transplant has failed.”

Mufti said it was easier to match cord blood than bone marrow. To find a suitable donor for a bone marrow transplant, there has to be a 95 per cent match to the recipient or their body will not accept it. But with cord stem cells, the match only has to be 70 to 80 per cent for a successful transplant, said Mufti.

Meehan said he found it:

“Truly incredible that such a dramatic change in my life was brought about by using ‘waste’ blood from a normal, everyday, discarded umbilical cord.”

He praised the NHS, the Anthony Nolan Trust and King’s College Hospital, saying they were doing exceptional work in this field, work which:

“Offers hope and a future to a huge number of people, but they still need more people to come forward to be tested as potential life-saving donors,” urged Meehan.

He described himself as “more than living proof” that the word “leukemia” is not the death sentence it used to be.

“Not a day goes by without my wondering about the baby who loaned me some of their stem cells – due to the Trust’s programme of anonymity I will never know who they are, but I will always be grateful and wish them the same hope for a long life and a healthy future as they gave me,” said Meehan.

Source: Anthony Nolan Trust, BBC News.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD