The first patient to undergo a bone marrow transplant in the UAE has told of how the stem cell treatment saved his life.
Abdullah Muhammad had blood cancer diagnosed in 2018 after he began to vomit blood.
Doctors said the health of the 49-year-old electrician from Pakistan had begun to rapidly deteriorate and his only option was to undergo an expensive bone marrow transplant.
“I didn’t have money to get a transplant and the UAE sponsored my treatment.
"I am happy to be first one to undergo this transplant in the UAE. It wouldn’t have been able to afford it in Pakistan,” said Mr Muhammad, whose family live in Khanewal District. The father of four received his transplant on July 18 at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City, with the involvement of Abu Dhabi Stem Cell Centre, which is also developing a treatment for Covid-19 patients.
The transplant procedure will bring hope to cancer patients in the UAE, who can now seek treatment closer to home.
Known as regenerative medicine, stem cell therapy promotes the repair of abnormal or injured tissue.
Doctors can manipulate the cells into the type the patient needs and inject them where repair is necessary. The cells can be taken from a matching donor or harvested from the patient, treated, and then reintroduced to the body.
The UAE has begun to harness stem cell therapy in recent months to fight the coronavirus, but this was the first time it was used in a transplant in the Emirates.
In Mr Muhammad’s case, stem cells were harvested from his own blood and were injected back into him after he underwent a short course of chemotherapy. This is called an autologous bone marrow transplant.
Dr Fatima Al Kaabi, executive director of Abu Dhabi Bone Marrow Transplant Programme, said the treatment was a milestone for the UAE.
“Most of these cases travel abroad so, in the near future, we will be self-sufficient and efficient to take care of our own with the highest calibre of medical care and international standards," she said.
Dr Al Kaabi said that to harvest the cells, Mr Muhammad was injected with a stimulant that prompted the stem cells to leave his bone marrow and enter his bloodstream.
His blood was drawn using a machine – similar to one used in kidney dialysis – to separate the plasma containing the stem cells from the blood.
The plasma was safely stored while Mr Muhammad underwent chemotherapy to “wipe out the bone marrow and give way to the new cells”, she said.
Mr Muhammad was kept in a sterile area for 10 to 15 days to prevent him from catching infections until the stem cells were returned to his body. The reintroduction of cells to his body took about 20 minutes.
After the successful autologous bone marrow transplant, Abu Dhabi Stem Cells Centre aims to begin carrying out transplants from related donors.
“For now only we are doing autologous transplants, where the patient and donor are the same person, but in the near future we will not only do related transplantation but more complicated ones where donors are not related to the patient,” said Dr Yendry Ventura, general manager of the stem cell centre and director of Abu Dhabi Bone Marrow Transplant Programme.
Sheikh Khalifa Medical City and the Department of Health Abu Dhabi are working on a stem cell donor registry.
The next transplant is scheduled for a few weeks' time, with the centre aiming to perform 10 transplants before the related transplant programme. It also plans to begin a transplant programme for children.
“We want to provide the people of UAE a programme that is not only comparable with any other programme in the rest of the world but also offers customised and personalised treatment,” Dr Ventura said.
Mr Muhammad, who has been in hospital since July 8, will be released in a few days and plans to return to Pakistan in October to see his family.