Charlie Whitaker, the boy at the centre of one of the fiercest debates over so-called 'saviour siblings' has had a stem cell transplant and is 'on the road to recovery', say his parents. Jayson and Michelle Whitaker made the decision last December to go ahead with the treatment, made possible after the birth of James Whitaker - a sibling created to be a perfect tissue-match for five-year old Charlie - last June.
In August 2002, when the Whitakers originally applied to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to use PGD to ensure that a new child would be a tissue-matched donor for Charlie, they were refused permission. The HFEA said this was because PGD could only be authorised when its purpose was to make sure that the child to be born would be unaffected by serious disease. Charlie has Diamond Blackfan anaemia, a rare blood disorder. But the condition is not inherited, so any future children of the Whitakers were not at increased risk of suffering from it. Last week, however, the HFEA changed its policy on this use of PGD, saying that in certain cases, PGD for tissue typing alone could now be authorised.
Following the HFEA's refusal, the Whitakers travelled to the Reproductive Genetics Unit in Chicago for IVF treatment with PGD. They produced nine healthy embryos, from each of which a single cell was tested to see if it would be a tissue match for Charlie. Three were a close match and the best two were transferred into Michelle's uterus. One of them successfully implanted and, as a result, James Whitaker was born. A sample of James' umbilical cord blood was taken at birth and sent to the Chicago clinic for testing to confirm the tissue match with Charlie. The remaining cord blood was stored at a stem cell unit in Oxford until it was needed for transplantation.
The stem cell transplant operation took place three weeks ago at the Sheffield Children's Hospital. Charlie needed chemotherapy before the transplant and is being kept in isolation as his immune system rebuilds itself with the help of Jamie's cells. His doctors have said that Charlie is showing signs of beating his illness, as there are 'early signs of engraftment of Jamie's cord blood cells', but that the next three weeks will be 'critical'. Dr Ajay Vora, who treated Charlie, said 'It is still very early days and there remains uncertainty over whether this will be sustained and whether it will include the vital red blood cells', adding 'we won't be able to declare him cured until a year after his transplant'. The doctors will be looking for further signs that Jamie's cells are grafting themselves into Charlie's bone marrow, and whether Charlie's immune system will be kick-started into producing healthy red blood cells, which would defeat the anaemia.