City of Hope: Legislator Casts a Lifeline to Transplant Patients

The most successful elected officials often are those with the patience to see their ideas through. A decade ago, long before he became a member of the California Assembly, Anthony Portantino knew what he wanted to accomplish. His neighbor’s son had cancer and was treated through a successful stem cell transplant using donated umbilical cord blood. When Portantino learned of his neighbor’s story of survival, he wanted to help others in the same way. He got his chance when his second child was born: Portantino and his wife donated her cord blood.

By Diego de la Garza

The most successful elected officials often are those with the patience to see their ideas through. A decade ago, long before he became a member of the California Assembly, Anthony Portantino knew what he wanted to accomplish.

His neighbor’s son had cancer and was treated through a successful stem cell transplant using donated umbilical cord blood. When Portantino learned of his neighbor’s story of survival, he wanted to help others in the same way. He got his chance when his second child was born: Portantino and his wife donated her cord blood.

The donation was far from easy, though. No system was in place to transport the cord blood from the hospital, and few centers were equipped to properly process and store the blood.

"I was handed a bag of cord blood, and I had to pack it on ice and ship it,” he said. “That’s when I realized that we were throwing out this precious resource rather than using it to save people’s lives. Something had to be done when so many Californians can’t find bone marrow donors."

Physicians transplant blood stem cells to treat leukemia, lymphoma and other life-threatening blood diseases. These stem cells often come from bone marrow.

Brothers and sisters whose tissue types match the patient’s are the best sources of these cells, but only 25 percent of patients will have siblings that match.

The most widely used alternative to bone marrow is blood from an umbilical cord — the cord that connects a baby in the womb to its mother. Cord blood is more likely than bone marrow to yield unrelated matches.

Portantino vowed to make the cord-blood donation process easier — a promise he kept on his first day in office as a state legislator.

Through a pair of bills supported by City of Hope, Portantino created California’s first public cord-blood collection program. And he did it at a time when partisanship made funding new public programs difficult.

Because cord-blood transplants are a growing part of City of Hope’s repertoire of treatments, City of Hope backed Portantino’s bills and provided information to legislators on the importance of passing the legislation.

In 2006, Portantino’s first bill on cord blood collection, AB 34, set up a public cord-blood collection program. His recent follow-up legislation, AB 52, modified the program and created a secure funding stream to support it. It was signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in September 2010 and became law this year.

The national marrow donor registry, Be The Match, has more information on cord blood donation.

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