A dying schoolgirl desperately seeking a bone marrow transplant to save her from a rare deadly illness is being kept alive - with horse blood.
Zoe Gilbert, 11, has a form of aplastic anaemia, which doctors believe can only be a cured by a transplant. The condition, also called bone marrow failure, affects the blood and is caused by the bone marrow and stem cells not producing enough blood cells. So far, Zoe’s desperate family have failed to find a match for the youngster.
Zoe Gilbert, 11, is dying from rare aplastic anaemia, which attacks her immune system. Doctors are keeping her alive with medicine made from horse anitbodies. Pictured with her mother Elizabeth and sister Kirstie
Instead, the schoolgirl is having her dangerously weak immune system boosted - by horse blood. A serum from the equine blood is injected into Zoe because it contains antithymocyte globulin (ATG) - an antibody which doctors hope will kick-start her immune system. Incredibly, the treatment has a range of bizarre side effects, including the growth of facial hair. There is also a risk Zoe could contract a deadly infection - but medics believe her illness is so bad the chance is worth taking.
Doctors hope the antibodies will kick-start Zoe's immune system. If not, her only option will be finding a suitable bone marrow donor to save her life
Zoe will have to wait for four weeks after the treatment is completed to find out whether it has been successful. If it doesn’t work, her only option will be finding a suitable bone marrow donor to come forward and save her life. Zoe’s mother Elizabeth Gilbert today launched an urgent appeal for more donors to sign up to the bone marrow register to ‘secure Zoe’s life’. She said: ‘It’s very difficult at the moment not knowing what will happen. My biggest fear is it not working and having to go through it again. ‘A transplant would secure Zoe’s life. Even if we don’t find a match,donors could save other people’s lives.' Zoe's sister, Kirstie Gilbert, 24, added: 'We are just desperate for her to be well again. Zoe wants to go to sleepover parties and not worry about getting sick. She has just started secondary school and is only able to do three days a week. The nursery school teacher, added: 'There are so many risks with this treatment and her body could reject it or relapse from it at any time.
'She's my little sister - I take her to have her nails done and treat her to shoes to try and cheer her up. 'But there are only so many pairs of shoes you can buy - she just wants her life back.'
Every year, thousands of patients with blood cancer and other blood disorders are given transplants of healthy bone marrow. Their own diseased marrow is first destroyed to prevent the new marrow from being rejected and to create space for the transplanted tissue.
Zoe, who lives with her family in Impington, Cambridgeshire, was diagnosed with the condition by doctors at Addenbrooke’s Hospital after she had ten nose bleeds in just two weeks. The condition means her bone marrow fails to reproduce red and white blood cells and platelets, which prevent bruising, and leaves Zoe with little resistance to infections.
Zoe, a student who loves football and swimming, has to have blood and platelet transfusions every week - spending days at a time in hospital.
Staff at Addenbrooke’s hospital and the Anthony Nolan charity, which manages the UK bone marrow register, have searched world-wide but failed to find a suitable donor for Zoe. Research shows that family members are not necessarily compatible and it is more likely that a complete stranger will be an exact match. Children who do not have a brother or sister who is a good bone marrow match can be treated with a immunosuppressive therapy using antibodies from horse and rabbit blood. The horse therapy reduces the number of white blood cells circulating in the bloodstream using drugs such as antilymphocyte globulin (ATG) and ciclosporin, which stimulate the bone marrow to restart blood cell production.
Myles Bradbury, consultant paediatric haematologist at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, said; 'For children who do not having a sibling bone marrow match the second option is an unrelated match. 'If, as in this case, we cannot find a match we use horse ATG, which has an 85 per cent survival rate.' The antibodies are given to the patient in a liquid medicine intravenously through a central line in the neck.
Unfortunately, the main side effect of ciclosporin is extra hair growth on the body, which can be quite obvious on the face. Patients can also suffer from high temperatures, rashes and swollen, painful joints. Zoe has to be kept in hospital for three weeks and closely monitored in isolation as she will be prone to fatal infection while undergoing the treatment. Dr Michael Gattens, consultant paediatric haematologist at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, said: ‘Ideally bone marrow is the best option but without a match we use ATG. ‘It is a pretty intensive treatment and can result in serum sickness, but we can only carry out marrow transplants if we have a perfect match - it is essential for this condition, otherwise it won’t work. ‘Zoe will be in hospital for three weeks and she will be kept in isolation and closely monitored for infection which in many cases can be fatal.’ He added: ‘For most people, a transplant is a long-term solution. Occasionally, many years down the line, people relapse.’
Aplastic anaemia affects only one in every 200,000 people and in many cases the reasons behind the condition are not clear. Experts estimate only about 30 to 40 children are diagnosed with aplastic anaemia each year. It can affect anyone at any age but seems to occur most often in children and people over 60 years old.
Daily Mail UK