UW Medicine’s Cord Blood Transplant Miraculously Treats Woman’s Rare Cancer

Alexes Harris, a sociology professor at the University of Washington, was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer called myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) in 2016. Initially misdiagnosed with asthma, Harris underwent aggressive chemotherapy followed by a bone marrow transplant. However, finding a suitable match was a challenge due to the underrepresentation of marginalized communities on the bone marrow registry. Fortunately, Harris was able to receive a cord-blood transfusion using stem cells obtained from umbilical cord blood. The transplant was successful, and Harris has been cancer-free since December 2016. As a result of her experience, UW Medical Center-Montlake has restarted its cord-blood donation program, hoping to encourage more mothers to donate cord blood and potentially save lives.

Harris’s story highlights the importance of diversifying the bone marrow registry to increase the chances of finding suitable matches, particularly for patients from marginalized communities. Currently, Black patients only have a 29% chance of finding a perfect match, compared to a 79% chance for white European patients. The use of cord blood, which is otherwise discarded as medical waste, has shown promising results in bone marrow transplants. The pluripotent properties of cord blood allow it to be used for transplants even if the blood type of the baby doesn’t match the recipient’s. Harris encourages more mothers to consider donating their baby’s cord blood, emphasizing that it is a meaningful way to start a baby’s life by potentially saving someone else’s.

Despite her challenging journey, Harris remains thankful and focuses on her family and relationships. She is actively involved in raising awareness and funds for cancer research, participating in events like the Big Climb in March 2024 to support the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Harris’s story serves as a testament to the power of medical advancements and the potential for individuals to overcome adversity with the support of medical professionals and their own resilience.

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