National Taiwan University Hospital announced yesterday the country's first successful cross-ethnic bone marrow transplant, from a Taiwanese donor to a Vietnamese recipient.
Doctors lauded the procedure by calling it a "miracle" due to the minimal chance of finding a compatible match for people who are not blood related, and an even lower chance if they are not of the same race.
Huynhn Thanh Thuan, 27, was a doctor in Vietnam's Cho Ray Hospital before he fell ill in January this year. Huynhn said he experienced symptoms of constant high fever, headache, back pain, and extreme fatigue.
When the doctors at the Blood Transfusion Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City diagnosed him with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) and advised that he needed a bone marrow transplant, Huynhn and his girlfriend, with the assistance of the Buddhist Compassionate Relief Tzu-Chi Foundation, came to Taiwan in April to seek a possible match.
Chen Nai-yu of the Tzu-Chi Foundation said Huynhn found a match in less than two weeks. Although the tissue type of the donor's marrow was only partially compatible with Huynhn's, after a period of contemplation Huynhn insisted on having the transplant.
Yao Ming, the attending physician, said that during the last four months, his patient had not demonstrated any signs of rejection of the new bone marrow, and is therefore expected to return to his homeland in February and receive all follow-up treatment at Vietnamese hospitals.
As the chance of finding a match in the Tzu-Chi bone marrow registry for non-Chinese Southeast Asians was less than 10 percent, Yao said, the success of Huynhn's transplant was truly miraculous.
"I do not fear death," said Huynhn with the help of an interpreter. "However, I do wish to live so I can use my medical knowledge and skills to save more lives."
Huynhn expressed his heartfelt appreciation to the medical team and the Tzu-Chi Foundation for granting him a "rebirth."
Doctors said that prior to a bone-marrow transplant, leukemia patients usually undergo chemotherapy or radiation therapy to destroy their leukemia cells and immune system. Stem cells are then introduced by means of a bone marrow transplant with the objective of growing a whole new set of healthy white blood cells.
Yao said that Huynhn received his first chemotherapy treatment in Vietnam. However, when he arrived in Taiwan, his new white blood cell count had declined sharply, meaning that his condition had regressed, and he was required to undergo a second round of chemotherapy.
According to the National Marrow Donor Program, transplant recipients maintain a possibility of graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) in which the new immune system, created by the donor's cells, attacks the patient's body.
Although GVHD can be damaging, the condition can be usually controlled with the use of drugs, said NMDP.
Yao said Huynhn has not shown any signs of acute GVHD but still faces a chance of chronic GVHD in the next 12 months.
Chen Yao-chang (陳耀昌), another NTUH doctor, said once Hyunhn passes the critical one-year mark, his recovery would be considered complete.
In Vietnam, Huynhn often made news headlines for saving the lives of many people injured in vehicle accidents and by other means. When his illness was made public, the Vietnamese public raised funds and donated money to help pay for the bone-marrow transplant, said Huynhn, vowing to hone his skills as a doctor so he can make a greater contribution to his country after he recovers.
"If I get a chance, I would like to return to NTUH as an exchange doctor to learn from the doctors there," Huynhn said.