Faster and cheaper: cutting-edge stem cell tech arrives in SA
New test means shorter waiting times for patients needing urgent bone marrow or stem cell transplants
When Ayaan Isaacs was born in March 2016, his parents immediately faced an uphill battle.
Ayaan had severe combined immunodeficiency, making him highly susceptible to severe infections.
A life-saving blood transfusion complicated matters by causing a syndrome characterised by heart problems, excess fluid in the lungs and fever.
Eventually, the Cape Town toddler’s story had a happy ending, but not before experts in the Netherlands and the US had been called in.
Now similar patients in SA can expect a smoother start in life thanks to a multimillion-rand investment by the Sunflower Fund, the stem cell donor recruitment centre and registry.
The new technology, known as next-generation sequencing, means patients like Ayaan who need urgent bone marrow or stem cell transplants will be able to have their human leukocyte antigen (HLA) type tested locally in the search for a donor.
The technology, operated by the non-profit Centre for Proteomic and Genomic Research in Observatory, increases the accuracy of donor/recipient matching by a factor of four, and Sunflower Fund CEO Alana James said the fund was the first registry in the world to tissue-type donors at such a high level.
She said the test meant more accurate data for doctors and shorter waiting times for patients like Ayaan needing urgent bone marrow or stem cell transplants.
“It results in a more concise list of potential candidates and eliminates the need for additional levels of testing to filter through potential donors – which is a very expensive process,” said James.
The new technology would also see more donors with African ancestry being tested thanks to new partnerships between the Sunflower Fund and donor centres in Kenya and Ghana.
James said the chance of anyone finding a match was one in 100,000 but in Africa the gap was even wider due to the continent’s ancestral diversity. On top of this, African ancestry was underrepresented in stem cell registries across the world.
Reinhard Hiller, MD of the Centre for Proteomic and Genomic Research, said the lab was also expanding its capacity to include ancestry testing.
While it had been around globally for the past 15 years, Hiller said it had not been prominently used in Africa, and even when it was it was mainly for recreational purposes rather than improving chances of donor/patient matching.
“The more one is able to understand genetic information about an individual at molecular level, the better the chances of finding a genetic match,” said Hiller.
“If we can assist with getting the best possible match for a patient to get them to transplant, that is the place where research and technology meet real impact.”
After almost a year in which Ayaan failed to find a match, he joined a gene therapy clinical trial at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, US. He received a transplant of his own stem cells in which a defective gene had been corrected.
“Now he is a happy toddler who leads a normal life,” said his mother, Shamaa Sheik.