UI Health physician helps launch bone marrow unit in Bangalore

A bone marrow transplant can mean the difference between life and death for people with blood cancers and related disorders. But many patients in India can’t afford the high treatment costs, and for them a transplant is not an option.

This is changing thanks to a newly launched bone marrow transplant unit at M.S. Ramaiah Medical College in Bangalore.

Dr. Damiano Rondelli (1st from left) with Dr. M. Kalashetty, BMT Coordinator (2nd from left), Dr. G. Kilara, Director of the MSR Cancer Centre (4th from right) at the launch of the BMT unit in Bangalore, India.

Dr. Damiano Rondelli (far left) with Dr. M. Kalashetty, BMT coordinator (second from left); Dr. G. Kilara, director of the MSR Cancer Centre (fourth from right) and staff at the launch of the BMT unit in Bangalore, India.

The five-bed unit, which opened last month, was established by local physicians and hospital administrators working with Dr. Damiano Rondelli, director of the blood and marrow transplant program at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System.

Bone marrow transplants in India are done mainly at nonacademic institutions and can be prohibitively expensive. Clinical standards, including infection control, can vary at these unaccredited transplant programs.

Ramaiah aims to become the first internationally accredited bone marrow transplant program in India. It will provide transplantation under high standards of care and at a significantly lower cost. The service will be subsidized by revenues from the for-profit hospital associated with the medical college.

“It’s a very nice model — sustainable, and every patient gets the same treatment, regardless of what they can pay,” said Rondelli.

Rondelli first visited Ramaiah in October at the invitation of his colleague Bellur S. Prabhakar, professor and head of microbiology and immunology and associate dean for technological innovation and training at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine. Prabhakar had been meeting with leaders at Ramaiah to discuss working together through UIC’s Center for Global Health.

“One of the things they wanted to do was to establish a world-class bone marrow transplantation unit,” said Prabhakar.

The need for bone marrow transplantation is high in India, a country of more than a billion people. Southeast Asians have a higher genetic risk for thalassemia, a disorder of hemoglobin, the molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from the tissues. Bone marrow transplantation is the only cure.

Rondelli carefully assessed available and needed resources for the hospital to build a bone marrow transplant unit that would meet international accreditation standards. The unit incorporates the latest technology and techniques for infection control, but also has plenty of windows, so immunocompromised patients in isolation don’t feel closed in.

Rondelli also helped the medical team develop standard procedures for bone marrow transplants. The unit performed its first autologous bone marrow transplant, in which the patient’s own marrow is re-infused after treatment, last month.

“The next step we are working on is to meet all the necessary standards required in order to apply for international accreditation,” Rondelli said. He thinks the program could be ready for accreditation in two years.

Rondelli says the partnership between UIC and Ramaiah will be a long-lasting one and may lead to the development of clinical research programs. There will also be training opportunities for Ramaiah physicians and specialists. Rondelli will host Ramaiah physicians at UI Health’s stem cell laboratory where they will learn advanced techniques for freezing and storing stem cells. He also hopes to share UIC’s expertise in treating sickle cell disease and thalassemia.