Ontario promises to expand access to stem cell transplants for leukemia patients

Ontario will increase access to stem cell therapy for leukemia patients who are not in full remission after rounds of chemotherapy treatment Health Minister Eric Hoskins announced Sunday.

Health Minister Eric Hoskins strikes task force, working on 4th clinic for province

Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins has struck a task force to expand access to stem cell transplants for leukemia patients. (Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty)

Ontario will increase access to stem cell transplants for leukemia patients who are not in full remission, Health Minister Eric Hoskins announced Sunday. 

That was an option previously unavailable for those who had been sent to the U.S. for treatment and had relapsed.

The health minister struck a task force this week to look at improving access to stem cell transplants for leukemia patients, following an investigation by the Toronto Star that found people had died on wait lists for treatment in Ontario that stretched for more than six months.

One woman died after she was not allowed to go ahead with the treatment in the U.S., because she was no longer in full remission, that newspaper reported.

"It has become clear that there are additional steps that our government can take to improve the way that we provide care to cancer patients in Ontario who may be eligible for stem cell transplants," Hoskins said in a statement released Sunday. 

Hoskins said that plans are underway for a fourth stem cell transplant clinic in Ontario. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

There are only three clinics in Ontario providing the stem cell therapy for leukemia patients, also known as allogenic transplants — at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, the Juravinski Hospital in Hamilton and at the Ottawa Hospital. 

Ontario set aside $100 million to pay for "urgent care" outside the province until the wait lists are curbed and, in a statement Sunday, Hoskins said "work is underway" on establishing another stem cell transplant at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto.

Hoskins was not available for an interview on Sunday and, therefore, it's unclear exactly how long it will be until another clinic is operational.

'It's like no chemotherapy'

Manjusha Pawagi credits a stem cell transplant with her remission for the last year and a half, after being diagnosed with leukemia on April 28, 2014. 

"It was an aggressive kind so they said that without a stem cell transplant the survival rate — the five-year survival rate — was only 40 per cent," she said.

The stem cell transplant instantly increased her chances of survival to 60 per cent, odds that continue to increase with every year that she remains in remission, she said. 

"If I make it to this October, which will be the two-year milestone, I'll be up to 90 per cent," she said. "If you can get far enough along, it's like no chemotherapy. Nothing else can give you that. It's the stem cell transplant that gives you that."

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