A 2-year-old San Diego girl who received a stem cell infusion of her own umbilical cord blood, banked at birth, is giving new hope to parents of children with brain injuries.
Doctors have used cord blood for decades to help with blood disorders and some other diseases, but now a handful of new studies show those same cells can travel up to baby’s brain and heal injured areas.
The ramifications could impact everything from autism to cerebral palsy.
Ava Johnson, born with cerebral palsy, had limited use of the entire left side of her body. She didn’t use her left hand and couldn’t walk at 18 months until an experimental treatment changed everything, according to her parents.
“Our daughter is walking, and she was told by doctors originally that she wouldn’t walk,” said Cathrine Johnson.
None of this would have been possible if Cathrine and her husband Jeremy had not followed the advice of doctors and banked Ava's cord blood with the world’s largest private bank, the Cord Blood Registry.
Cord blood banking isn’t for everyone. In most cases the blood will serve as an insurance policy which never gets used.
An NBC investigation uncovered how just 100 families out of the half million samples at Cord Blood Registry actually benefitted from their own stem cells.
But in Ava’s case, with abnormalities detected before birth, a maternal fetal medicine specialist strongly encouraged it, especially after hearing about a clinical study out of Duke University.
“I felt that because that study was ongoing and they’d already published some pretty dramatic encouraging results, I felt her baby might benefit at some point from a cord blood infusion,” said Holly Casele, M.D.
The Johnsons, who estimate Ava’s two infusions cost $25,000 with travel expenses, didn’t have the money, but they took loans and borrowed from family members to make it happen. The infusions weren’t covered by insurance.
“We prayed on it and felt it would be wrong of us not do everything in our power to give her every chance possible,” said Jeremy.
The family estimates it took just three weeks after the first procedure for Ava to start walking on her own.
“Many of the children we’re treating have similar medical stories,” said Joanne Kurtzberg, M.D, who helps lead the research. “All in all, I’d say we’re excited to see there is some beneficial effect of cord blood in these situations and we’re trying to study in the laboratory how it’s really working."
Ava's family has started a GoFundMe page to help recuperate medical costs.
Ed. Note: A previous version of this article reported Ava was 3 years of age. We regret the error.