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Eight Million Stem Cells – Give Or Take A Few Thousand

Eight Million Stem Cells – Give Or Take A Few Thousand

This is Chapter 5 in the on-going story of Alex Kip, 23, and his battle with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (Type B) cancer.

In the old – and more painful – days, stem cells were extracted from bone marrow deep inside the bones of a patient’s hip with the help of a rather large needle.


These days, stem cells are collected from a patient’s blood. It still involves a needle, but it’s a lot smaller and less invasive.

This is how Alex spent the weekend

“When we say stem cells, that’s the cells that make the red and white blood cells and platelets,” said Dr. Sam Penza, one of Alex’s physicians at The James. “They live in bone marrow spaces, but also circulate in the blood stream at lower concentrations.”

On Saturday and Sunday, Alex spent several hours at The James, hooked up to a machine that sucked out his blood, separated out the stem cells – and eventually returned what was left into his bloodstream.

The procedure wasn’t exactly pain free, but all eventually went well.

“Yesterday was hell, but today was a breeze,” Alex said on Sunday.

So, the blood comes out of Alex's left arm and...

The problem on Saturday was finding a vein through which to collect Alex’s blood. Due to his most recent chemo treatment and subsequent bout with nausea, he was dehydrated. This closes up the veins and makes it hard for a nurse to get a good “stick.”

“It really hurt,” said Alex, who’s not a whiner. If he says it hurt, then it really hurt – and he had the bruises on his arms to prove it. After the fourth unsuccessful attempt, “I put on my headphones and listened to some hard-core hip hop.”

“I couldn’t watch,” added Cindy Kip, Alex’s mom. “I just buried my head in my book.”

On the seventh attempt, Alex’s nurse hit pay dirt – and a vein, and the machine next to Alex began whirling and collecting his blood. His blood went out through the tube attached to his left arm, just below the elbow, into the machine, and back into his body through the tube on his right hand.

And goes through this machine, where the stem cells are seperated and extracted and then...

“The different parts of the blood have different molecular weights,” said Susan, the nurse in charge of collecting Alex’s stem cells.

Human blood is comprised of three main parts: red blood cells, plasma and a buffy coat, which is where the stem cells live.

“A centrifuge in the machine can separate them, like oil and vinegar,” Susan said.

The stem cells in the buffy coat that were spun out were then taken to a lab at The James, where the stem cell content was calculated. Dr. Penza’ goal for Alex was to collect about 8 million stem cells.

On Saturday, about 7.7 million were collected, which was great news.

It goes back into ALex through his left hand

“You get the most stem cells in the first two blood volumes, but there are still more out there,” Susan said. A blood volume is all of a person’s blood – and it takes at least an hour for this to circulate from the body, to the machine and back into the body.

Because Alex – and his stem cells – did so well on Saturday, Sunday’s session was cut short after only a few hours. His doctors now have enough of Alex’s all-important stem cells – which were frozen soon after they were extracted – for what lies ahead.

Alex’s stem cell transplant will start in anywhere from five to 10 days, Susan told him.

And, she added, he doesn’t have to come to the hospital for any other procedures between now and then.

“That’s awesome,” said Alex, who plans to make the most of the time he has left before his expected 30-day hospitalization for the stem cell transplant.

The procedure begins with six days of massive chemotherapy.

“He’s going to get considerably greater doses than he’s ever had,” Dr. Penza said. This chemo is designed to kick the crap out of and eliminate what’s left of the stubborn tumor in Alex’s chest. But it will also wreak havoc on the rest of his body and leave his immune system in tatters.

“If we didn’t rescue the bone marrow (and stem cells), his counts might never recover on their own and he could die,” Dr. Penza says. “So it’s important to collect enough.”

Dr. Penza will soon start Alex's stem cell transplant procedure

Dr. Penza is actually over collecting, just in case.

The chemo and transplant will be followed by radiation treatments.

“We need about four to five million stem cells initially,” Dr. Penza explained. “If we get that, we know his counts will recover. But then we will radiate his ribs and sternum and some of the spine, where a lot of bone marrow cells are produced.”

This could cause Alex’s counts to drop again. If this happens, Dr. Penza will have about three million “backup” stem cells to put back into Alex to help his body recover.

Alex knows the transplant will be difficult – and he’s in for some rough days ahead.

“I wouldn’t exactly say I’m excited about it, but I’m ready to do it,” he said. “So far, every step has seemed scarier than it actually turned out to be – but it plagues your mind thinking about it before it happens since you don’t know. And this one is the biggest ‘Oh My God’ one so far. You do worry about what’s it going to be like.”

Click here to read Chapter 4 of Alex’s story.

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  1. Bud - January 18, 2011

    All the strength to you Alex!!

  2. Sharon Duggan - January 18, 2011

    I do hope it goes well for you!! Thoughts are with you and your family 🙂

  3. Melissa Strader - January 19, 2011

    You won’t be doing it alone, that’s for sure! Lots of love going with you.

  4. Sam Penza - January 21, 2011

    Your bone marrow was cranking to produce those stem cells. We are one step closer to our ultimate goal. Take Care.

  5. Ann Napoletan - January 24, 2011

    Alex, I used to work with your mom, and a friend shared this link to your blog with me today. You are, and will continue to be, in my prayers…. sending you strength and healing thoughts….

  6. Cheryl - January 25, 2011

    I had this same procedure done…17 YEARS AGO!!!!!!!!!!! Healthy ever since. So, hang in there and keep your eye on the carrot at the end-SO WORTH EVERY MINUTE I was hooked up, every moment of nausea, every tired bone in my body.

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