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The University of Montréal and of the world

The University of Montreal and of a molecule that could revolutionize how blood cancers are treated

Guy Sauvageau and Sandra Cohen

Four years after the discovery of a molecule capable of multiplying the stem cells contained in umbilical cord blood, the Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer (IRIC) team is enthusiastic following a promising initial clinical trial: UM171 could revolutionize treatment for diseases of the blood.

When this breakthrough reached the ears of Mai Duong in 2014, the Vietnamese Montrealer was preparing to receive the transplant that would cure her leukemia – it was impossible to wait any longer. Luckily, her slight build worked in her favour: the stem cells from the blood of a single umbilical cord were enough to save her.

Thanks to UM171, more adults could soon be able to take advantage of this option. “In seven days, we had enough cells for a transplant for a 70-kilo adult. And these cells don’t have time to differentiate, which optimizes the engraftment,” explains Dr. Guy Sauvageau, who discovered the molecule.  

The results of this study were unexpected: mortality related to the transplant was reduced, and low reaction of the graft against the host; immunosuppressants were stopped with the majority of patients less than a year after the transplant; and the survival rate is excellent. “We were hoping for a single, but we hit a home run,” says Dr. Sauvageau.

“Other clinical trials, notably in Seattle, will have to confirm these effects, but the results are promising,” says Dr. Sandra Cohen, principal investigator of the clinical trial and Mai Duong’s haematologist.

“It’s thanks to science that I’m here, now, appreciating this moment,” says Mai Duong. “It’s not from Stanford or somewhere else, it’s from here, Montréal, and it makes me so happy that this breakthrough could help other patients.”

Dr. Guy Sauvageau is a lead researcher at the Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer (IRIC) at the Université de Montréal, a hematologist at the Hôpital Maisonneuve-Rosemont (CIUSSS de l’Est-de-l’Île-de-Montréal) and a member of the Academy of Sciences of the Royal Society of Canada (RSC). 
Dr. Sandra Cohen is an associate professor at University of Montreal and a transplant haematologist at the Hôpital Maisonneuve-Rosemont.

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