Back in 2010, Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg, a Duke University professor and physician, saved the life of an Israeli girl stricken with cancer. Her battle with the disease was closely watched by the whole country. Six years later, this past month, the cord blood stem cell physician and the 13 year-old reunited in Israel, when Dr. Kurtzberg came to evaluate children with cerebral palsy for a new study using umbilical cord blood stem cells.
"I am glad to see science is able to provide solutions for cases which used to be regarded as hopeless," says Dr. Kurtzberg. "I only hope that those who continue throwing umbilical cord blood into the garbage will realize that it's a treasure."
Dr. Kurtzberg’s acclaim and respect by experts in her field has only grown in the intervening six years as has demands on her time for advice and treatment from all corners of the world. Her research is considered ground breaking by many who consider her a ‘miracle maker,’ in the field of stem cell treatments.
"I agree to the definition 'miracle' because there is no other way to describe the things that are happening. When a girl who cannot move her arm uses a fork and eats on her own – that's a miracle. When a boy who hardly spoke starts to sing – that's a miracle. But I'm not responsible for those miracles.” Kurtzberg does not credit herself for the ‘miracles,’ but rather understands like few others the potential of cord blood stem cells to treat diseases and play a critical role in regenerative medicine.
Dr. Kurtzberg origins in cord blood banking
Dr. Kurtzberg’s early inquiries into umbilical cord blood banking started when she was pregnant with her son more than three decades ago. She questioned her OBGYN, asking why the umbilical cord was discarded. Though considered medical waste, Kurtzberg felt that the stem cells in the cord blood could be used therapeutically. But her gynecologist was totally dismissive and let it be thrown away. “Let it be,” he told her; “it's science fiction.”
Was he ever wrong!
Dr. Kurtberg’s own foray into stem cell research came through work she did with autistic children while she was in university. By and large, the autistic kids that Dr. Kurtzberg worked with were very disengaged and not interactive, very often ‘in their own worlds.’ However, what interested Dr. Kurtzberg was how the kids could be reached through music with rhythms and tones. This progression from detached and unreachable to alert and highly present intrigued Dr. Kurtzberg and she wanted to better understand the internal mechanisms at work that made this leap possible in autistic children.
Her academic studies in medical school included a specialty in pediatrics and a sub-specialty in pediatric hemato-oncology. Early on in her academic career, Dr. Kurtzberg pursued what was then a new field: stem cell transplants. In 1988 the first-ever umbilical cord blood transplant took place in France, and though Dr. Kurtzberg did not perform the transplant, the child was a pediatric patient of Kurtzberg’s. The boy suffered from Fanconi Anemia, a severe inherited disease that damages bone marrow. By age five, Dr. Kurtzberg, who had been involved in the boy’s care almost since birth, told his parents that without a transplant of stem cells originating from umbilical cord blood, he would not live more than six months. Today, that boy is 32, healthy, working, and leading a normal lifestyle.
Duke University Medical Center
For the next 20 years, Dr. Kurtzberg studied the use of umbilical cord blood stem cells in the treatment of diseases. She established a pediatric transplant program at the Duke University Medical Center, treating children with cancer and blood and immune system diseases.
And that’s how she met the then six-year old girl, Amit Kadosh. Having exhausted options back in Israel (a bone marrow transplant was considered, but a match could not be found), the head of one of Israel’s leading bone marrow banks introduced the Kadosh family to Kurtzberg's research and expertise in the field. After months of back-and-forth correspondence, the Kadosh family found out that Amit could be treated with stem cells from the umbilical cord blood of an anonymous girl. They flew to North Carolina within 4 days.
After one month, post-transplant, the first indications of the transplant’s success became apparent. Importantly, Amit’s blood counts began to rise, an important telltale sign that Amit’s own body had begun producing blood cells. But she wasn’t immediately ‘out of the woods.’ Because of her high risk of contracting viruses and infections, the Kadosh family stayed put at Duke Medical for a year and four months until Dr. Kurtzberg finally gave them permission to return home. Since then, every year the family flies to Duke for continued follow-up tests that Dr. Kurtzberg herself administers, and compares Amit’s updated tests with earlier ones.
Treatment of debilitating diseases continues to rise
Dr. Kurtzberg just recently concluded a ground-breaking study, approved by the FDA, on treating cerebral palsy with umbilical cord blood. In this study, the umbilical cord blood is autologous (comes from the patient him/herself and which the parents chose to preserve with a cord blood banking company.)
Sixty-three children from ages one to six are part of the experiment. Half of the children received their umbilical cord blood stem cells right away, and the second half got their stem cells a year later. Over the course of another year of follow-up, the children who received stem cells earlier exhibited significantly more improvement. The results have not been published yet, but in Dr. Kurtzberg’s words, “I really hope that this article will receive a lot of exposure amongst physicians and even those who continue to throw umbilical cord blood into the garbage will realize it's a treasure."
New frontiers: autism and strokes in elderly
Today, Dr. Kurtzberg is conducting a study using autologous cord blood stem cells to treat autism. "For me it will be closing a circle because I began dealing with medicine because of autistic children", conveys Dr. Kurtzberg.
She is also conducting two additional studies simultaneously: use of siblings' umbilical cord blood (allogeneic) to treat children with cancer and the use of umbilical cord blood to treat grandparents with strokes. Science fiction couldn’t be further from the truth. Dr. Kurtzberg is proof positive.
(This post was inspired by an article published in the May 2016 Parents Guide to Cord Blood newsletter, http://parentsguidecordblood.org.
Based on an interview by Smadar Shir with Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg printed in the Israeli newspaper, Yediot Aharonot
, April 6, 2016.)