Cord blood: from bench to clinic

An interview with Prof. Young-Ho Lee of Hanyang University who brought the concept of ‘cord blood transplantation’ to Korea with the first successful cord blood transplant in 1998.

Prof. Young-Ho Lee

Cord blood is the blood that remains in the umbilical cord when the cord gets removed after the birth of a child. Cord blood is recognized to be rich in stem cells and it is effective in treating leukemia, childhood cancer and many other life-threatening illnesses.

Young-Ho Lee (Professor, Medicine) is the one who brought the concept of ‘cord blood transplantation’ to Korea. With the very first successful cord blood transplantation in 1998 in Korea, Lee proved his ability to safely perform the procedure. Not only has he been focusing on curing patients with cord blood, but he has also worked on establishing policies dealing with the procedure. Internet Hanyang News met Lee to hear more about his research, aspirations and dream.

Q. Please tell us how you started your research and what you have accomplished so far?

A. My specialty is in pediatric hemato-oncology and I first came across a cord blood transplantation when I was in the UCLA Medical Center as a postgraduate researcher in 1991. After I settled down in Busan, Korea, I met a leukemic patient whose mother was pregnant with a baby. So I used her newborn sister’s cord blood to treat the patient's illness for the first time in Korea.

When adult stem cells are refined for general use, you call them “cell therapy products”. Globally, numerous studies on yielding cell therapy products have been conducted and the best place to find adult stem cells is the bone marrow and the cord blood. However, if you are extracting stem cells from the bone marrow, you need to take risks in obtaining the specimen from healthy donors’ bones. On the other hand, the cord blood is much safer to tap into to get the cells. I conduct a research on simply separating cord blood cells themselves before cultivation that are then cryo-preserved in cord blood banks. With certain confidence that the pure cord blood can be of use to properly cure diseases at a cheaper cost and better availability, I focus on the public sense of the use of cord blood.

Not only do I continue with my cord blood research and cure patients using it, I also work on a broader sense of the development of cord blood treatment, rendering my knowledge. For example, I have come up with the bill on management and research for cord blood with then-senator Park Geun-hye. There are very few countries with such laws and Japan has been recently asking for help. Even though Korea has started a bit later than other advanced countries with the study of cord blood, it has developed a lot in areas such as clinical techniques and policies.

Q. In 1988 researchers in France successfully performed the first clinical trial to test if cord blood transplantation can help treat refractory hematologic disease. Developed countries recognized the importance of cord blood early and established cord blood banks. However, the cord blood transplantation was a new idea in Korea in the 1990s. What were the difficulties you faced?

A. In Korea, newly introduced treatments aren’t covered by insurance. So when I did the first cord blood transplantation in 1998, the cost of the operation was roughly about one hundred million KRW and the patient was not able to afford it. So some benefactors and I helped in paying the cost of the operation. I realized that this was an important problem, so with the efforts of doctors and the patient’s parents, the law was changed in January of 2003, to allow cord blood transplants to be covered by National Health Insurance. Since then about 500 cord blood transplants have occured. In addition, I felt the need to establish a cord blood bank in Korea, so I conducted a fund raiser myself. I got ten million KRW worth of donation from one hospital director that I am acquainted with of. Also, I went to Busan City Hall to get some financial help. However, lack of social awareness on cord blood gave me a hard time explaining and getting the support.

Q. Despite all the obstacles, earlier this year, you became the first in the world to successfully prove that autologous cord blood can be a safe and effective treatment for cerebral palsy (CP). Could you elaborate on this? And what is the driving force behind your medical research?

A. Since 2010, I have conducted autologous cord blood treatment on 20 CP patients and 5 of them have gotten better regardless of their ages and underlying causes. With concrete data from Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT), the treatment has gained credibility, so the results have been published in the Journal of Translational Medicine (Impact Factor: 3.51). One astounding example from this research is that a young female CP patient who wasn’t able to jump or move on her two feet could walk again after the treatment. I think I can dedicate my performance to two words: passion and hard-work. Without passion, I don’t think I could accomplish anything. Moreover, you need to put in as much effort as passion. When I came back to Hanyang University (HYU) in 2005 from Dong-A University in Busan, I was in my forties and I had a passionate determination that I would make a contribution to HYU. It is no doubt that your passion loses its light as you age. However, you always need to remind yourself of your passion and your goal.

Q. Along with the fact that the birth rate in South Korea has been constantly decreasing, the pediatrics has been losing its popularity among prospective medicine students. What do you think of such phenomenon?

A. It is true that few students get interested in pediatrics in the recent days. The more stability they pursue, the less they study the pediatrics, meaning that they cannot ignore economic stability when choosing their majors. Furthermore, even if they choose to major in pediatrics, they prefer to study the allergic or light diseases area rather than the fatal illnesses such as childhood cancer. However, I always tell my students to remind themselves of their very first goals when they first enter the College of Medicine. As far as I know, plenty of them have once dreamed of saving people’s lives. So I always encourage them to follow their dreams.

Q. What is your ultimate goal or future plan?

A. I have first introduced cord blood in Korea to cure leukemia and other almost incurable blood-related diseases. Also, I helped establish cord blood banks. Now is the time for me to work on giving more benefits to patients of various sicknesses. In addition, I want to be a part of the HYU Medical Center in boosting competitiveness among university hospitals. I am sure that I can bring something to the table. Furthermore, I have a dream to make a pioneering move in the field of cord blood.


Lee also received a Ministry of Education, Science and Technology Award from the Minister in 2009, a President’s Award in 2010, and this year he was honored with the Best Presentation Award of the International Society of Pediatric Oncology.

Article was written by Ally Jeong
Photo by Gae-ho Seo

Published: 28 Sep 2012


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