ABU DHABI // An eight-year-old Emirati boy born with a genetic disease can now lead a normal life thanks to medical foresight and a good decision made by his parents. Zayed Alhammadi had Beta Thalassaemia Major (BTM) diagnosed at birth, a blood disorder that can cause severe anaemia, poor growth and skeletal abnormalities during infancy.
If left untreated, the condition eventually leads to death, usually by heart failure.
Young Zayed, who lives with his family in Al Ruwais, has faced the trauma of regular blood transfusions during his short life.
But since undergoing a stem cell transplant thanks to a donation from his younger brother, Mohammed, who is four, he is now heading towards a full recovery.
Although essential, regular blood transfusions can also be damaging as they result in iron overload, leading to organ damage. It is only counteracted by more medication.
Doctors at Corniche Hospital in Abu Dhabi advised Zayed’s parents to store cord blood stem cells taken from Mohammed at birth, as there was a good chance of him being a suitable donor.
Zayed’s transplant marked the first release of a privately stored stem cell sample from the UAE to the US when the successful transplant was completed at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore.
“Our son is in much better condition after the transplant, it has been remarkable,” said Zayed’s father, Nouh.
“Stem cell storage is so valuable, even though it is something that you hope you will never need, like insurance.
“In our case, we did need it and we are incredibly glad we made the decision to store the cord blood in the first place, otherwise our family’s future would be very different.”
Zayed underwent a transplant using a combination of cord blood and bone marrow to optimise the chances of success.
Doctors have been closely monitoring Zayed’s progress since the transplant and, 18 months on, he has not required a single blood transfusion and has returned to school.
“BTM is often called the Middle East disease, as it is so common here, especially with Emiratis,” said Mai Ibrahim, lab director at CryoSave Arabia in Dubai, which stored Mohammed’s stem cells.
“I feel privileged and blessed that I was able to be part of the transplant procedure.”
Although the exact cause of the condition is not fully understood, experts believe it is probably a result of relations who may both be carriers getting married. When two carriers then have children, there is just a 25 per cent chance of a child being healthy.
A stem cell transplant is the only known cure for BTM.
The procedure continues to evolve and offers a lifeline to patients and families with other life-threatening conditions, such as leukaemia, lymphoma, sickle cell disease and other immune and metabolic disorders.
As Mohammed’s stem cells were stored outside America, in the UAE, it was imperative to ensure all the necessary criteria were met in terms of accreditation, compliance, as well as safe storage.
Dr Kenneth R Cooke, director of the paediatric blood and marrow transplantation programme at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said more families are taking similar steps to guard against future health issues.
“Stem cell storage can change lives,” he said. “To see such a positive outcome with Zayed’s case shows just what is possible.
“I would always recommend families to store their child’s cord blood, whether they know of any possible health issues or not.”