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Leukemia patients wait up to three months for stem cell transplant

Last Updated Feb 11, 2016 at 7:29 pm EDT

Leukemia patients who have found stem cell donors are being told they have to wait up to three months for a life-saving transplant due to bed shortages in Ontario.

According to Cancer Care Ontario the average wait time for a stem-cell transplant in Ontario is between four to 12 weeks.

Provincial targets say that number should be closer to six weeks.

“Our wait times are higher than what we’d like to see at the present time,” Dr. Robin McLeod, vice-president of clinical programs and quality initiatives at Cancer Care Ontario, explained.

Right now there are three hospitals in Ontario that perform stem-cell transplants. One of those, Hamilton’s Juravinski Hospital, has 10 beds required for such a procedure.

Specialized rooms equipped with high air pressure are required for such procedures to eliminate infectious agents, McLeod said. The average patient stay following the procedure is around 100 days.

“The indications for stem cell transplants have increased considerably,” McLeod said. “We have increased our volumes, doubled them in the last five years.”

In Ontario there are approximately 80 patients currently on the wait list for a stem-cell transplant.

The spike in patients can be attributed to advances in sciences, allowing more patients than ever before to be considered candidates for stem-cell treatment.

An estimated 21,000 people in Canada will be diagnosed with a blood cancer, and two thirds of those will eventually need a stem cell transplant.

As a result, the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care said it has increased funding for stem-cell transplants at Ontario hospitals by $2.5 million since 2013.

“We will continue to work closely to expand access to emerging treatment options, including stem cell treatments, and to ensure that patients receive integrated, effective and timely care,” Minster of Health Dr. Eric Hoskins said in a statement.

Yet until the funding translates into more specialized beds, McLeod said the province is paying to send some patients to the United States.

“Right now we have agreements with three institutions in the US and, yes, the cost of transplant outside of Canada is much higher than here in the province of Ontario,” she said.

Blood cancers are the fourth most frequent cancer diagnosis in Canada, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada.