Abu Dhabi: At 17 years of age, Hussain Al Beloushi is living the full life of any teenager in Dubai — playing sports, spending time with friends and family, and dreaming of his future as an engineer or doctor.
Yet, just two-and-a-half years ago, he was living in the shadow of thalassaemia, a debilitating genetic disease that necessitated frequent blood transfusions and held the risk of fatal complications. It was a new type of bone marrow transplant that he received in the US-based Cleveland Clinic that cured the Emirati teenager.
With International Thalassaemia Day observed on May 8, Al Beloushi now has a simple message for others with the disease.
“Never give up hope. I truly believe that everyone has a chance to be cured as nothing is impossible,” he said.
Thalassaemia, a blood disorder, is common in people of Middle Eastern descent, and around 8.5 per cent of Emiratis are thought to carry the defective gene.
The radical new procedure that was performed on Al Beloushi - haplo-identical bone marrow transplant – has the potential to cure thalassaemia with minimal risks or long-term side effects.
“In traditional transplants, the donor and recipient cells need to be genetically matched, which means only around 25 per cent of patients would be able to receive a bone-marrow transplant,” explained Hussein’s doctor, Dr Rabi Hanna, director of paediatric bone marrow transplantation at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital in the United States.
“But in the newer haplo-identical transplant, the donated cells only need to match half of the recipient’s important genes. This broadens the scope of possible donors tremendously – now almost every child will have a suitable donor, whether it is their mom or dad, or a half-sibling,” the doctor said.
Al Beloushi underwent the procedure at Cleveland Clinic in November 2016, using bone marrow donated by his brother Suhail, then aged 11. After the transplant, he received additional immuno-suppression medications for a while to avoid rejection of the marrow.
Dr. Hanna says that as well being more accessible, the new procedure offers better outcomes.
Before the transplant, Al Beloushi had to undergo painful monthly blood transfusions, and the constant need for medical care affected his education.
“I used to miss lots of classes because of the many doctor appointments and because I felt tired and exhausted most of the time. Now, I attend my school regularly and I do not miss anything,” he said.
His mother, Farida, added that the disease had had an impact on the whole family’s life due to anxiety over the condition, and because the extensive travelling to seek treatment often took them away from Al Beloushi’s other siblings.
Beta thalassaemia major can also be fatal due to the extensive blood transfusions needed. Over time, an influx of iron-containing haemoglobin can lead to a buildup of iron in the body, resulting in heart, liver, and hormone problems.