Watching Isaac Coutte chase down a football, you might never guess that the 12-year-old once suffered from sickle cell anemia, or that he was one of the first children in the country to be cured by stem cells released into his bloodstream by a transfusion of cord blood.
"I feel very lucky because I could have died," says Isaac.
Doctors harvested the blood from the umbilical cord during the birth of his now 4-year-old sister Eunice. The technique was pioneered at Children's Hospital Oakland and has been used to save scores of other children since. However, it has never developed into a practical treatment for adults.
"There is simply not enough stem cells in one unit of cord blood to transplant an adult," says Dr. Frans Kuypers.
So Dr. Kuypers and his team at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute began to look into another stem cell source also retrieved during the birth process -- the placenta.
"So we collected placentas, and then take the placenta and see whether there are cells there that are stem cells... yes there were," says Dr. Kuypers. "Not only are they there, yes you can tease them out, and yes there are many more than you will have in one unit of cord blood."
In a study published this month, Dr. Kuypers' team documented that stem cells taken from the placenta survived transfusion into animals, and indeed began producing healthy blood cells. That is the key to their effectiveness in treating diseases of the blood, like sickle cell anemia.
Researchers believe a combination therapy could now extend the same treatment option to adults.
"So that means that now you have cord blood and now you have placental derived cells, which are very similar," explains Dr. Kuypers. "If you combine them, now you have enough to transplant an adult."
Placenta blood also has advantages over options like bone marrow transplant because the donor match does not have to be as exact.
"Approximately, 8,000 to 10,000 people die each year who could be transplanted, or considered for a transplant," says vice president of research Bert lubin.
Lubin believes the therapy may eventually be used for a variety of genetic blood diseases and cancers like leukemia.
Back in Brentwood, Isaac and his family are simply thrilled that the procedure that saved his life is now evolving into a new therapy that could save thousands of others.
"For the people that have suffered just like me, this disease or another disease, I think they can get cured," says Isaac.
They can get cured with the stem cell and bone marrow transplant.
Researchers say the discovery could be a particular benefit for minority patients who statistically have a more difficult time finding a match for bone marrow transplant.