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Patient Care - At the (Stem) Cell Level

February 10, 2017

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — At The University of Kansas Health System, staff not only care for patients. They also care for patients' cells.

Just take a trip into the newly renovated BMT Cell Processing Lab, located in The University of Kansas Hospital.

There, a five-person team collects, manipulates and cryo-preserves adult stem cells for patients receiving blood and marrow transplants at The University of Kansas Health System and at Children's Mercy Hospital.

Depending on the patients' needs, the stem cells can be stored for years in stainless steel tanks resembling large thermos bottles. These high-tech containers hold their product at -325 degrees F, thanks to an exterior layer of liquid nitrogen. The lab stores stem cells from approximately 1,200 patients and donors.

Dean Merkel, MT(ASCP), who manages the cell-processing lab, describes the facility as one of the behind-the-scenes marvels of the health system's blood and marrow transplant program.

Approximately 25 times a month, physicians perform the transplants, requiring the reinfustion of stem cells into patients after their own marrow has been damaged by high-dose chemotherapy. The stem cells are harvested from the patient before chemo, or from a donor.

After reinfusion back into the patient, the stem cells – which start as undifferentiated "mother" cells – migrate to the patient's marrow and begin making blood cells again.

As one of the Midwest's few Designated Marrow Donor Program Collection Centers, patients from as far away as Denver and Ohio have traveled to The University of Kansas Health System to have their bone marrow collected for transplantation at a different transplant center.

The lab also supports several clinical trials and physicians researching high-profile immunotherapy treatments for certain types of cancer.

With demand increasing for services, in November the lab moved into a larger space at the hospital, replete with new equipment for labeling cellular therapy products, more tanks for storing cells, a bulk liquid nitrogen delivery system and sophisticated clean rooms for complex cell processing, among other advances.

"Our outstanding blood and marrow transplant program could not exist without an exceptional apheresis unit and cell-processing lab to support it," explained Merkel.

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