City of Hope’s bone marrow transplant program recently performed the procedure on its 15,000th patient, a remarkable milestone considering that the initiative started with just two physicians, three beds and guarded expectations in 1976.

Forty-three years ago, a college student from Indiana became the hospital’s first successful bone marrow transplant.

In October of that year, the student, then 27, received the heartbreaking news that he had acute myeloid leukemia (AML). In those days, an AML diagnosis was grim and bone marrow transplantation (BMT) was still primitive and not in wide practice. At the time, City of Hope was one of only six medical centers in the United States offering it.

The student’s doctor advised the young man to get his affairs in order, but his cousin, a doctor living in Los Angeles, told him she knew of a cancer treatment center in nearby Duarte that had just launched a program for BMT.

A HISTORIC FIRST

Trusting his cousin’s advice, the young man came to City of Hope. His eldest brother was selected as a match, and he underwent a BMT as a patient of Karl Blume, M.D., who established the BMT program at City of Hope in 1975 with Ernest Beutler, M.D. Standard treatment in 1976 meant he would endure very high doses of chemotherapy followed by three-hour sessions of full-body radiation. Following the transplant, he spent a month in isolation.

This young man became one of City of Hope’s longest-surviving BMT patients, remaining in remission for 35 years until his death in 2011.

Since then, City of Hope researchers have led the way in making transplants more effective and safer. Ours is one of the largest and most successful programs in the United States, and the most prodigious BMT program in California, with 720 annual transplants, on average.

REFINING THE TECHNIQUE

BMTs establish a new, disease-free blood and immune system by transplanting healthy blood stem cells into the body after destroying the patient’s unhealthy bone marrow. This process can be taxing on the body, but City of Hope has made great strides in improving the safety of the procedure.

When the program started, because of the physically challenging nature of the procedure, transplants were rarely performed in patients over the age of 30. Now, City of Hope offers the treatment to older patients.

City of Hope was one of the first institutions to do BMTs in people over the age of 50 by developing an approach based on the idea of a reduced intensity, or “mini” transplant. This breakthrough method relies less on heavy doses of chemotherapy and radiation and more on the antitumor effects of the graft itself.

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