Man with leukemia says umbilical cord blood saved his life: "I've become the biggest advocate"

SEATTLE — The last place you would think to look for a life-saving treatment for cancer would be the trash, but each year, it’s estimated that 90% to 95% of umbilical cord blood ends up in the garbage. That's a harsh reality for Chris Lihosit, who says it saved his life.

According to KCPQ, in 2015, Lihosit was undergoing treatment for leukemia. Doctors told him he needed a bone marrow transplant. So they went to the registry, looking for a match.

"It hadn't even come to my mind that 1) I wouldn't even find a match, because there is tens of millions of people in the registry and in the world. I only had one person who was a match for me and it was an obscure registry in Eastern Europe, and once they finally contacted that person, they said 'no,'" Lihosit said.

Lihosit's Hail Mary was a clinical trial at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance -- using umbilical cord blood to treat cancer. He wasn't just a good candidate. It was his only option.

"Cord blood was it -- capital IT," Dr. Filippo Milano said. "The first word I told him is 'I don't know how much you know about cord blood. I don't know how much you've been told by others. But you're going to have a good shot here.'"

Dr. Milano and his colleagues at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance are working to expand umbilical cord blood stem cells, by using multiple units.

In Lihosit's case, the cord blood used came from anonymous donors through a process that happens at the hospital when a baby is born. Parents can choose to donate their baby's cord blood.

In many cases, according to KCPQ, parents don't know to ask, and many hospitals aren't equipped to take the donations. For that reason, 90% to 95% of cord blood ends up in the trash.

"It's medical waste. They're there. It can be used," Dr. Milano said.

Eight months after his diagnosis, Lihosit was cancer free. He now wants others to know cord blood can save lives.

"I've got a couple of friends who are expecting. My sister is expecting, and I've become the biggest advocate for telling them, donate for one, and ask. Ask if it's an option. Sign up. I'm proof positive that it works. Lives are on the line. I have a very unusual tissue type, which meant only one person in the world matched me, but there's more than just me out there. There are an entire population of people who are looking for their match. They're looking for their miracle," Lihosit said.