A poignant tale of a brother who saved his sister’s life


Chennai : In Tamil his name means carrier of fame. But what Pugazhendi, a one and a half year old boy actually carried to this world was a second life for his elder sister who suffered from thalassaemia, and in the process achieved fame.

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Pugazhendi and his sister Thamira’s case is India’s first successful stem cell transplant story.

Every year 10,000 children with thalassaemia are born in India, which constitutes 10 percent of the total number in the world. One out of every eight carriers of the disease worldwide live in India.

It was Pugazhendi’s umbilical cord blood stem cell that cured his sister Thamira of the fatal disease.

Today their joyous parents Senthil Kumar and Sarojini are heaving a sigh of relief. They no longer have to endure the pain of their daughter, who was suffering from the blood disorder for the past seven years. Thalassaemia is passed genetically.

The disorder results in the destruction of red blood cells and causes severe anemia that can occur within months following birth.

The diseased person has to undergo monthly blood transfusions. If left untreated, severe anemia can result, as well as other common physical complications that can lead to a dramatically decreased life-expectancy.

A team of doctors in Chennai and Coimbatore used Pugazhendi’s umbilical cord blood to cure his sister’s disease.

Tracing their family’s poignant story, Kumar, a carpenter said Thamira was a normal girl for one and a half years after her birth.

“Then one day she went pale and the doctors uttered the dreaded word thalassaemia. That was the first time I heard the word.”

Kumar and his wife were shattered to hear that their tender daughter had to undergo monthly blood transfusions. Adding to their worry was the cost.

Sarojini aborted her next two pregnancies fearing the child would also suffer from the disease.

It was then the couple met Revathy Raj, a doctor at Apollo Speciality Hospital here, who advised Thamira to start taking iron reducing medications initially. She asked the Kumars to consider another pregnancy and suggested that they opt for an umbilical cord blood stem cell transplant. A pre-natal test confirmed that the foetus was unaffected by thalassaemia.

“We approached various societies and LifeCell International, for financial assistance. LifeCell helped us to preserve my son’s cord blood stem cells free of cost at their centre in Chennai,” Kumar said.

For a year, the extracted cord blood stem cells were preserved under specific conditions. The human leukocyte antigen (HLA) test was done which proved that the tissues of both the children matched and the treatment could proceed.

“The first step was to destroy all the existing bone marrow cells for which chemotherapy was used. Then the donor’s stem cells were injected in the patient’s body. The procedure requires no surgery,” explained Raj.

In March 2009, the transplant was done at the Apollo Hospital and it helped Thamira get rid of thalassaemia.

The stem cells that were transplanted came from her brother’s umbilical cord blood and his bone marrow.

“When they used the needles for blood transfusion it would hurt. Sometimes they would never get the vein but still I had to go for blood transfusions every month. My brother’s cord blood saved me or I knew I wouldn’t have been alive for long. I love my brother,” said young Thamira.

“This success I am sure will give new hope to thousands of families whose children are unfortunately the victim of this dreadful disease. It feels very fulfilling that LifeCell could make an impact in a child’s life. We are very happy to be a part of this success story,” said Mayur Abhaya, president and executive director, LifeCell International.