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First Adult Cancer Patient in Nashville to Receive Stem Cell Transplant from Umbilical Cord Blood at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center

When 24-year-old Charles Dougherty checked into Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center this week, he began preparing for a treatment that has never been performed before in an adult patient in Nashville, and will be only the second case in Tennessee history. The stem cell transplant will use blood from an anonymous umbilical cord donor and could save Dougherty’s life.

Madan Jagasia, M.D., a specialist in hematology and stem cell transplant, will perform the transplant. "If Charles doesn’t get the transplant his leukemia will come back. He has already relapsed once," Jagasia said.

Cord blood transplants have been widely used to treat children with blood-borne cancers, but the procedure is still new in adult patients because of the amount of stem cells needed for a larger patient. Jagasia said the techniques needed to safely carry out the cord blood transplant have also improved. "We’ve gotten better at freezing, transporting and collecting cord blood."

Dougherty, a combat engineer for the Army stationed at Fort Campbell Ky., said he’s ready for this fight. "Used to, when they told you, ‘you have cancer’ it was pretty much over. Now they can pretty much cure everything," said the husband and father of three girls. "It’s pretty nifty. It’s very advanced," he added.

Jagasia said Dougherty will undergo very powerful doses of chemotherapy and radiation over the next week to rid his own body of any cancer that might be hiding someplace in his blood and ruin the chances of a successful transplant. It’s potentially the most difficult part of the entire transplant process. "This is the dangerous part. This is intense chemotherapy. Twenty percent of the time we lose patients," Jagasia said.

While Dougherty is being prepared for transplant, the cord blood will have already been flown in from the blood bank in New York. It arrives frozen in liquid nitrogen. Jagasia and his colleagues warm the blood and it is placed in a syringe. The transplant itself is fairly simple -- an IV line is placed under Dougherty’s collarbone and the stem cells are pumped in to do their work.

"These cells are smart. They home to the bone marrow -- how we don’t know. They only go to the bone marrow," Jagasia said.

Dougherty will be given medications and watched closely for something called graft versus host disease (GVHD), and a rejection of the transplant, which Jagasia said happens 6 percent to 8 percent of the time. "Charles will basically have someone else’s immune system," he explained.

The cord blood has been put through rigorous testing and has proven to be a match for Dougherty with enough stem cells for his body weight. Only time will tell if this will prove to be a cure for his cancer.

Jagasia encouraged others to consider cord blood donation. "Lots of people are banking for their own purposes, but the chance is about one in a million that you’ll ever use your own. Otherwise, it’s being discarded," Jagasia said. He said you can donate cord blood for free to one of three certified banks in the United States.