I haven’t updated my blog for a while as I dont know where to begin as usual. So much has happened since my post about my second stem cell transplant that I’ve not been able to step off the emotional (more so than the physical at the moment) roller coaster that is living with myeloma for a break. I had hoped for a few months of not having to think so much about myeloma and the course of my disease, just a bit of time off for good behaviour! Four months on and I have pretty much recovered from the physical effects of the transplant. I have a spotty face, dry eyes, occasional bouts of diarrhoea and usually wake up feeling like I have a hangover from hell! I’ve been on two fantastic and completely opposite holidays, the first in Egypt exploring the underwater wonders of the Red Sea and then a few days later to Iceland exploring the land of ice and fire.
The reason why I crammed these holidays in to such a short space of time will become apparent later on in this post. That is the good news, the bad news is that a couple of months ago I found out that my stem cell transplant hasn’t had much effect on my light chains so it is unlikely that I’ll have much more time free of treatment.
The further blow is that the boss here at the Manchester Royal Infirmary thinks I will be resistant to the next line of treatment, Revlimid, as it was one of several drugs in the VDR Pace regime that I had before my transplant to which I also didn’t respond. After Revlimid there is only one further new line of treatment currently available on the NHS called Pomalidamide and the boss didn’t seem to have a good view of that either. I asked her how long she thought I’d got, the answer was one to one and half years. I was completely shocked on two levels…….that my stem cell transplant hadn’t worked and that my disease may be resistant/refractory to Revlimid which I was saving for a rainy day. The timescale for living was sharply brought into focus and my awareness of my mortality became very real again in a flash. I am probably more conscious of this than most people I know because of living with an incurable life shortening disease where the chances of surviving more than 5 years from diagnosis are only 45% but even knowing this I have sometimes felt or even assumed somehow that I am going to live much longer. The failing aggressive treatments and multiple relapses have now provided a much needed reality check! Hence the holidays to Egypt and Iceland.
The purpose of the meeting with the boss whom I don’t normally see was to discuss a donor transplant, technically called an allogeneic transplant. This has been lurking in the background to my first and second transplants ie an auto followed by a donor transplant, usually within 4 to 6 months of the auto. Because it is tandem to the auto, it is called a reduced intensity allogeneic transplant (a RIC allo for short). The idea is that you get the high dose of Melphalan that I described in my post on the auto transplant and then your own stem cells back to rescue your bone marrow. This hopefully keeps the myeloma at bay whilst you have the donor transplant a few months later where the chemo given is generally less intense and designed to dampen down your immune system so the new donor cells can engraft and hopefully recognise the myeloma cells as foreign and attack them.
A RIC allo was suggested by the boss after my first transplant in 2011, it being offered to younger high risk patients like me as it may give a longer remission and in a small number of cases be potentially curative. Maybe about 10% of patients live for 10 years or more after an allogeneic transplant. At present in the myeloma field there is no other treatment that can be potentially curative in this way. Sounds great, why wouldn’t I have it? Because on the downside it carries a significant risk of transplant related mortality and chronic graft versus host disease which could severely affect my quality of life. The generally quoted figures for transplant related mortality for an auto are around 2/3 %, for a RIC allo it is more like 20% depending on exactly what type are having. I agonised over the decision the first time around, should I take my chances and see how long I got from my auto, some people get years, or should I take the risk and go for it as it is best performed upon first response? I bravely or foolishly decided to go for it only to later find out that there was only a 7/10 matched unrelated donor (my brother and sister weren’t a match either) so the RIC allo couldn’t go ahead and the plan was shelved until, if and when I had my second stem cell transplant in the hope that a suitable donor might have come on the register by then.
When I relapsed, the prospects seemed slightly better as I was told that there was a 9/10 match which might be a possibility. My approach was to take it one step at a time, get through my treatment and my second stem cell transplant and then have another discussion with the boss. I did have a preliminary discussion with her before I started VDR Pace and she told me that upon further analysis the 9/10 match wasn’t ideal as there was a weight issue ie the donor weighed a lot less than me so I might not get enough stem cells for my body weight from her. I suggested I go on a diet but the boss didn’t think that was a good idea when recovering from my transplant! In any event there was a mismatch at an important level which meant there was a much greater risk of mortality from the transplant. She suggested I might have a cord blood transplant as an alternative.
This is where umbilical cord blood is used as a source of donor stem cells taken from babies whose mothers who have kindly agreed to donate their baby’s umbilical cord. It is then typed, stored in a cord bank and registered with the Anthony Nolan Trust. There is less chance of a mismatch because the stem cells are immunologically naive. As an adult I would need two cords.
It has rarely been done in myeloma patients and there is very little to go on in terms of its effect on disease control in myeloma patients. The further disadvantage is that there is no possibility of a donor lymphocyte top up which is possible in the usual type of donor transplant to try and stimulate graft versus myeloma effect if a patient is showing signs of disease progression. At one point the boss said it would be experimental and she wasn’t sure that she would be willing to do it. We left it that I would get through my autologous stem cell transplant and decide after that and she would contact a Haematology boss at the City Hospital, Nottingham, a renowned transplant centre, whom she thought might have done some for myeloma. I also asked her to find out more about my tissue type as I was thinking about starting a more personalised Anthony Nolan campaign to try and find a match with the aim of getting more recruits to the register and wondered what my genetic background might be.
She found out that there had been two cord blood transplants carried out by the boss in Nottingham for myeloma patients, one was doing very well and the other not so well, so not very helpful but both were still alive! I did a trawl of the internet and found a study from France on the use of cord blood transplants in 17 relapsed myeloma patients which seemed to demonstrate a graft v myeloma effect and similar survival stats to RIC allo studies which she found encouraging. On that basis she said she would be prepared to do it. She also had a response from the tissue typing people at Anthony Nolan about my tissue type :-
“For Wendy’s HLA type, she has one half of her type which has been seen quite a lot in European populations – mainly from Eastern Europe, but it’s most common in Croatia, Poland& France (about 6-11%).
The other half of her type has never been reported in any known populations. There is something very similar (A antigen mismatched) in a few European populations (especially Germany/Netherlands).
New haplotypes arise by genetic crossing over, and it isn’t too unusual for HLA-A to be crossed over when a new embryo is created. My best guess is that somewhere in Wendy’s ancestry (and it’s not possible to know at which point) a new haplotype was created in this way, and that the descendents with this haplotype have not spread far enough yet to make it common. This is why it’s fairly easy for us to find a 9/10 match, but not a 10/10. Wendy’s HLA antigens are not desperately uncommon in themselves, it’s just that because the genes in the HLA complex are very tightly linked together, this particular combination aren’t usually found together.
Hope its not too confusing”
Wow, I’m annoyingly rare, a new haplotype, is half of me alien? A lot of this is way over my head but I finally knew there was no point in clinging on to the hope that if I waited a bit longer I might get a 10/10 match or even a suitable 9/10 match as there would always be a mismatch at a major level. So before I had my autologous transplant I knew my options afterwards were either going to be the experimental cord blood transplant or see how long I got from my second transplant and maybe have Revlimid maintenance. I tried to put this out of my head until I had the further meeting with the boss about two months after the transplant and concentrated on getting through it and living day to day. If I thought about it too much it would spoil my determination to live in the present. And that is what I have to do. That is enough to take in in one post, Part 2 coming soon!