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How the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund Helped a Young Lupus and Sickle Cell Patient

YOToday, Yetunde Olagbaju is a young, healthy, educated and successful woman working at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine as a research program coordinator. But before she was a Hopkins employee, she was a Hopkins patient.

Yetunde's life was very different just four years ago when her kidneys started to shut down. Born with sickle cell disease, she was diagnosed with lupus as a senior in high school and was not able to live a healthy and active life. She experienced chronic pain, was in and out of hospitals, and on an aggressive prescription medication regimen. But thanks to a grant from the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund (MSCRF), a stem cell transplant from bone marrow was going to save her life.

Yetunde's doctor, Dr. Robert Brodsky, director of Division of Hematology at Johns Hopkins and Javier Bolanos-Meade from Johns Hopkins’ Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center (SKCCC), worked with a three-year grant of $690,000 from MSCRF to further develop and expand their groundbreaking discoveries in stem cell therapy. Dr. Brodsky and colleagues from SKCCC developed half-matched bone marrow transplantations, leading to a cure for patients, including Yetunde, of some cancers and blood disorders. Rather than wipe out a patient’s immune system with extensive amounts of chemotherapy before transplanting donor bone marrow stem cells, doctors administer just enough chemotherapy to suppress the immune system, which keeps patients from rejecting the marrow and prevents harm to their organs. This procedure also expands the potential donor pool, making more patients eligible for stem cell transplantation treatments.

"With funding from MSCRF, we were able to find a way to decrease the dosage of chemotherapy, which reduces toxicity in the body," said Dr. Brodsky. "We've also found a way to perform stem cell bone marrow transplants with half-match donations. Before these treatments were available, doctors looked for a full match for sickle cell patients, which was extremely difficult because in many cases, the person with the closest match, such as a sibling, may also have carried the sickle cell gene. With this new treatment, a patient’s parents or children could be suitable donors, opening the door to a huge donor pool."

Yetunde underwent a stem cell transplant from half-matched bone marrow donated by her brother, Olumide. Since the successful procedure, Yetunde is now cured of lupus and sickle cell disease, her kidney function is normal, and she no longer takes medication for sickle cell disease or lupus. Looking back, Yetunde is thankful to the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center for her treatment and the MSCRF for providing funding to develop innovative programs for patients, which ultimately saved her life. Yetunde has been able to enjoy life care free and without pain. "All in all, this treatment gave me a whole new life. The only time I go to the hospital now is when I go to work," said Yetunde.