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July 15, 2013

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Leukemia survivor plans career in medicine

FOR 17-year-old Zhang Jiani, the road to a good education has been paved with more than just the usual hitting the books.

Beyond scholastic achievement, Zhang also had to battle leukemia.

Her classmates at Xuhang Middle School weren't aware of her illness, even though she is two years older than fellow students who took this year's high school entrance exam last month. She is believed to be the first recipient of an umbilical cord blood transplant in Shanghai to take the exam.

"I didn't want to be treated differently by teachers and classmates," she said. "Only my class teacher knew of my medical history."

Zhang scored 505.5 out of a total 630 points on the entrance exam, which also covers entry into vocational schools like the one she hopes to enter. She was awarded 27 points for sports participation, including ball games and long-distance running.

Zhang has applied for admission to a vocational nursing school. She is expected to hear back this week on whether her application has been successful or not.

It's no coincidence that Zhang wants to pursue a career in the relatively new science of stem cell medicine. It saved her life.

Zhang was diagnosed with leukemia in August 2005. She had to quit school for two years to undergo treatment.

Unable to find a matched donor at an adult bone marrow bank, her family turned to the Shanghai Cord Blood Bank and found a matched sample in the umbilical cord of a newborn boy named Xu Xijun. She received the transplant in April 2006, and stopped anti-rejection therapy in early 2007.

Zhang is believed to be the longest-surviving leukemia patient to have undergone an umbilical cord blood transplant in Shanghai.

"I chose nursing school because I want to become a medical staffer," Zhang said. "With that background, I want to apply for a job at the cord blood bank after graduation. The bank means so much to my family and me. It's hard to express my gratitude for all the people who have helped me during a difficult time."

In China, 40,000 people are diagnosed with leukemia every year. Half of them are children.

The Shanghai Cord Blood Bank is the nation's largest regional bank of its kind, collecting stem cells similar to bone marrow. The cells can be used to treat people with leukemia and other immune-system diseases.

An advantage of umbilical cord blood is that its stem cells are less mature than those in adult bone marrow and thereby less prone to rejection by the recipient.

Researchers said the chances of finding an acceptable matching donor for a patient is 50 to 100 times higher with umbilical cord blood than with bone marrow.

"Taking part in the exam itself was a success for both the girl and our nine-year-old bank," said Zhang Jiaqing, an official at the blood bank. "We hope it will encourage more donations of umbilical cord blood."

He said about 629 units of umbilical cord blood have been given to 571 patients, most of them leukemia sufferers. About 70 percent of recipient has survived over one year and over 60 percent has survived over three years.

The recipient now plans to become a donor to the cause.

"I will use my own experience to promote the idea of donating umbilical cord blood and help more leukemia children like me," Zhang Jiani said.


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