Russell, Ontario, native Jonathan Pitre just had his second stem cell transplant in less than six months.
This time, it worked.
Suffering from a severe form of epidermolysis bullosa (EB), an incurable genetic condition which causes the skin to blister and create painful wounds, Pitre, who turns 17 next month, was given the moniker “Butterfly Boy” due to his delicate skin.
EB can be fatal, with many people who have severe EB dying from skin cancer in their twenties. Pitre underwent his second stem cell transplant procedure at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, a pioneer in treating EB though stem cell transplants.
Paediatric hematoligist-oncologist with the University of Minnesota Jakub Tolar calls EB “the worst disease you’ve never heard of,” as it affects only one in 20,000 people. Research by Tolar and his colleagues led to the discovery that bone marrow transplantation, a procedure typically used to treat blood cancers in the bone marrow such as leukemia, could benefit those with EB.
“This had never been done before,” says Tolar, who directs the U of M’s Stem Cell Institute, in a press release. “I didn’t know it at the time we started this research 10 years ago, but it opened a totally new field in transplantation biology.”
Stem cell transplants involve a person’s blood-forming stem cells (immature cells that can become various types of specialized cells in the body, in this case, becoming different types of blood cells) from the bone marrow and replacing them with healthy stem cells.
For Pitre, his earlier bone marrow transplant last October proved unsuccessful as doctors learned that his own stem cells had recolonized his bone marrow. This time around, the results look more promising. Pitre’s mother, Tina Boileau, who was the donor, is now full of joy and relief, according to an Ottawa Citizen report, which states that newly created white blood cells in Pitre’s system contain a pair of X chromosomes, indicating that they came from Boileau’s donated cells.
“This is the best news ever, the best Mother’s Day gift,” said Boileau. “Jon is full of me. He doesn’t have any T-cells that are his.”
It’s been over 30 years since bone marrow cells were first used to treat cancer, but recent advances have shown the potential application of stem cell transplantation for a variety of diseases and conditions, from brain and spinal cord injury to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s to HIV/AIDS. Researchers at Cardiff University in Wales, for example, have just announced commencement of stem cell transplants for patients with Huntington’s disease.
The Ontario government has just announced $32 million in new funding to help shorten the long wait times for stem cell transplants in the province, meaning that 150 more patients a year will be able to receive transplant therapy. As reported in the Hamilton Spectator, $10 million of the new funds will be going to the Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre in Hamilton for a dedicated unit with 15 inpatient and five outpatient beds.
Below: TSN Original: The Butterfly Child