Can Cord Blood Cure Leukemia? (Debunking The Myths)

Can stem cells cure leukemia

Blood transplants using the blood collected from the umbilical cords of newly born babies has been successfully performed since the early 1990s. It is known that more that 70 serious illnesses can be successfully treated with stem cell transplants. Can cord blood cure leukemia?

The answer to this important question is a resounding ‘yes’. To date there have been thousands of cord blood transplants. Many of them have been to treat cancers like leukemias and lymphoma plus other blood disorders including sickle cell anaemia and other rare anaemias. .

What is leukemia?

There are a number of different types of leukemia. Some types are more common in children, whilst other types are found mainly in adults –

‘Leukemia is cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues, including the bone marrow and the lymphatic system.

Leukemia usually involves the white blood cells. Your white blood cells are potent infection fighters — they normally grow and divide in an orderly way, as your body needs them. But in people with leukemia, the bone marrow produces an excessive amount of abnormal white blood cells, which don’t function properly.

Treatment for leukemia can be complex — depending on the type of leukemia and other factors’. Source

The Mayo Clinic website a describes the main different types of leukemia –

  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). This is the most common type of leukemia in young children. ALL can also occur in adults.
  • Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). AML is a common type of leukemia. It occurs in children and adults. AML is the most common type of acute leukemia in adults.
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). With CLL, the most common chronic adult leukemia, you may feel well for years without needing treatment.
  • Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). This type of leukemia mainly affects adults. A person with CML may have few or no symptoms for months or years before entering a phase in which the leukemia cells grow more quickly.
  • Other types. Other, rarer types of leukemia exist, including hairy cell leukemia, myelodysplastic syndromes and myeloproliferative disorders.

At present, it is not known exactly what causes leukemia but scientists believe that both genetic and environmental factors play a role. So let’s look more at can cord blood cure leukemia?

How is leukemia treated?

Can cord blood cure leukemia successfully

There are a variety of different treatments including chemotherapy, radiotherapy and targeted drug therapy. Stem cell transplants are also used. The transplanted stem cells are used to replace unhealthy bone marrow.

The transplanted cells are healthy and do not have leukemia and they will develop into healthy bone marrow cells as the stem cells are able to develop into bone marrow cells as well as blood cells.

Often the leukemia producing bone marrow is destroyed by chemotherapy, prior to the stem cell transplant.

Why is cord blood good to use?

Scientists are regularly evaluating the performance of stem cell transplants from cord blood and those from bone marrow. They continually find that using cord blood for transplants brings many advantages.

Cord blood is richer in stem cells than bone marrow and peripheral blood stem cells so less blood is needed. It has also been proven that the recipients body is less likely to reject the cord blood than the bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells.

Studies show that a transplant complication called graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) is less common and less severe in patients after a cord blood transplant versus a transplant using peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC)’.

This is because the cord blood does not need to be as close a match as bone marrow. Thus making cord blood easier to use for patients with less common tissue types. Stem cells also have the ability to develop into a range of different types of cells.

The recipient of a cord blood stem cell transplant is also likely to fight the disease more effectively enabling them to live longer. Norton also states that –

‘ Today, 11% of transplant patients receive cord blood from an anonymous donor’.

If a child has stored cord blood and develops leukemia can their own blood be used?


Unfortunately, this is one very important point about a stem cell transplant to treat leukemia.

‘The important caveat is that children with leukemia or another blood disorder must receive a cord blood transplant from a donor, NOT their own cord blood. It turns out that when children and even adolescents develop leukemia, they were born with the genetic defect that triggered the leukemia… hence it is not safe to give them a transplant with their own cord blood because it probably carries the mutation for leukemia’. Source

When a stem cell transplant uses cord blood from an unrelated donor this is referred to as an “allogeneic transplant”. This is essential if the recipient has leukemia. For many other serious illnesses it is possible to use the stem cells from the patients own cord blood. This is referred to as an “autologous transplant”.

Transplant surgeons use donor stem cells for patients with leukemia because the stem cells are likely to fight the leukemia far more effectively than the patient’s own stem cells.

Can cord blood cure leukemia when a patient needs chemotherapy or radiotherapy?


The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society explains what happens in these circumstances –

‘Cancer treatment with very high-dose chemotherapy or radiation therapy may result in severe injury to blood-forming cells in marrow, the spongy material inside the centre of bones.

Certain patients with leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma, myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) or other blood cancers may benefit from high-dose chemotherapy or radiation therapy followed by stem cell transplantation’. Source

Final Thoughts – Can cord blood cure leukemia?

A diagnosis of leukemia can be devastating – not just for the patient – but for the whole family. A stem cell transplant brings with it great hope that the leukemia can be destroyed and the recipient can look forward to many happy years of life ahead of them. In this article we delved into the question can cord blood cure leukemia? It is reassuring to know that it can!