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While Dr. Colleen Delaney considers childbirth as a miracle in itself, she also sees its potential to offer a miracle of another kind—a cure for cancer.
By harnessing the healing power of umbilical cord blood, Delaney, who established and directs the Hutchinson Center’s program in cord blood transplantation, is pioneering a treatment that’s proving to be a landmark breakthrough for leukemia patients. In Delaney's hands, cord blood stem cells offer hope to desperately ill patients by helping them replace ravaged blood systems.
Medical researchers have long known that cord blood is a potential source of stem cells—which are not the same as embryonic stem cells—for transplants to treat leukemia and other blood diseases, but the small number of these cells in each unit collected has hampered its use. The low cell count meant it took too long for the transplant to take hold, leaving patients at risk of life-threatening infections.
Delaney and her lab colleagues have toppled this barrier by developing a revolutionary technique that expands the cells 164-fold, resulting in successful and rapid engraftment and making cord blood transplants a safe, effective possibility for adults.
Cord blood has advantages as a stem cell source. It is readily available, fewer viral infections are transmitted with it, and it doesn't require the extremely close genetic matching of bone marrow transplants. That makes it especially promising for the 16,000 leukemia patients diagnosed each year who can't find a matching donor—many of whom are of mixed ethnic or racial ancestry. Delaney has numerous clinical trials under way and is optimistic that cord blood will someday enable “a donor for everyone.”
Delaney began her oncology career intending to treat children with cancer. She said she loves the strength and courage with which kids confront a scary trial like cancer. But to her surprise, she was drawn to research as her primary focus.
"I love caring for patients, but being a doctor opened my eyes to the potential of research, where I realized I can really change things for a lot of people. That drives me," Delaney said. "It's very important for me to have my hand in patient care, but I also want to fix the problems and that only happens through research."
During an early career fellowship in the lab of the Center’s Dr. Irwin Bernstein, Delaney recognized the significant potential of moving laboratory findings forward to advance patient care. Delaney built upon Bernstein’s work, engineering a protein to activate the cells and greatly increase their quantity. She's quick to acknowledge the lab staff, some of whom have toiled for 25 years on cord blood stem cell expansion. "The work I do would not be possible at many places," she said. "It's such a collaborative place, and the facilities are critical, too. I do not work in a vacuum.
"Translating laboratory findings to the patient bedside is no small feat. And when the time finally comes and a patient agrees to take a step forward with a new treatment, the feeling is without description," Delaney said. "Then when the treatment works, there isn't anything more gratifying."