The symptoms started with recurring bouts of fever and the couple’s world turned upside down when their only son was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) at the age of seven.
The boy underwent treatment for eight months at the Regional Cancer Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, and was normal for two and half years, before he suffered a relapse. The doctors told the couple, who hail from a southern district in Tamil Nadu, that a bone marrow transplant was the only way to save their son’s life.
Undeterred by their economic situation, the couple began to browse the websites to look at the various treatments available for their son and finally zeroed in on the bone marrow transplant facility available at MIOT Hospital in Chennai. “He weighed 45 kg and had suffered a relapse of AML,” Dr Joydeep Chakrabartty, haematologist and haemoto-oncologist, MIOT, recalled.
An Allogenic transplant, in which the stem cells of a donor are used, had to be ruled out in the absence of a proper match. “The biggest challenge in bone marrow transplants in India is finding matching donors,” another expert Dr Chezian Subash pointed out. “We have 40,000 patients in India waiting for a matching donor.”
“The doctors tested our daughter’s stem cells but they did not match our son’s,” the parents recalled. “There is only 25 per cent chance of a sibling’s stem cells matching that of the patient,” Dr Chakrabartty added.
Hence, in a first-ever attempt in the country, the experts decided to perform a Haplo-identical bone marrow transplant on the boy – with a 50 per cent matching donor who could be either of his parent, in this case the mother. “The challenge is to make the 50 per cent match work and fetch 100 per cent results,” Dr Chakrabartty said.
The transplant was preceded by intense chemotherapy followed by cleaning of the bone marrow, moderating its immunity to make it an effective recipient. The mother’s stem cells were then infused into the boy’s system. It is 80 days since the transplant and the boy has shown remarkable recovery. “We bring him weekly once for check up,” his parents said.
With the first-ever Haplo-identical bone marrow transplant success story in their bag, the hospital formally launched the ‘MIOT Institute of Haematology, Haemato-Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplant’ unit on Thursday.
Stating that the transplants required complex pre- and post-treatment procedures, the two medical experts said the institute, which had a state-of-the art-infrastructure, also performed autologous, allogenic and cord transplants costing between Rs 5-15 lakh, the most economical in the country.
Inaugurating the unit, British Minister Kenneth Clarke called for increased medical collaboration between India and the UK. “It will be one of mutual interest,” he said.
An MOU was also signed between MIOT and Whittington Hospital, London, for setting up an antenatal screening service, which would be the prototype for Tamil Nadu and India. “The goal is to make sure that no Indian baby is born undiagnosed with Thalassemia,” Dr Subash said.
British deputy high commissioner Mike Nithavrianakis, Nick Harper of Whittington Hospital and a large British delegation participated in the function.
The couple, who waged a relentless battle to save their son’s life, has only one message. Even in the face of a dreadful disease like blood cancer, it is important not to give up. “We saw many children dying because their parents lacked the will and awareness about transplants,” they said. “But the procedure is truly expensive,” they added.
But there is no regret. Although they might have sold off their house and all the jewellery, they are happy that the doctors could give their son another lease of life.