St James’s Hospital celebrates 40th anniversary of Ireland's first bone marrow transplant

Posted on: 10 June 2024

Home to the National Adult Stem Cell Transplant Centre, over 3,750 stem cell and bone marrow transplants have taken place at the hospital since 1984

St James’s Hospital celebrates 40th anniversary of Ireland's first bone marrow transplant

(Pictured at the event were Prof. Paul Browne, Consultant Haematologist, St James’ Hospital, Dr  Catherine Flynn, Prof. Mary Day and Minister Stephen Donnelly)

Today St James’s Hospital marked the 40th anniversary of the first bone marrow transplant which took place in Ireland in 1984. This procedure marked the beginning of a pioneering treatment at the hospital, which now performs stem cell transplants in almost 200 patients from across the island of Ireland each year. 

Professor Shaun McCann, emeritus Professor of Haematology at Trinity College Dublin and Head of Transplantation at St James’s Hospital performed the first transplant with an expert team in 1984. Since then, the National Adult Stem Cell Transplantation Service has expanded to include the first Irish centre for Adult CAR T-Cell Therapy. Such cellular therapy treatments are often life-saving treatments for blood related cancers such as leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma but also include some rare cases of bone marrow failure. The service is currently the third largest of its kind in the UK and Ireland, with patients referred from all over the country (including some patients from Northern Ireland) to St James’s Hospital. 

Speaking today at an event at the hospital to celebrate the milestone, Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly TD said: 

“I am delighted to join St James’s Hospital and Trinity St James’s Cancer Institute today to acknowledge and celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first bone marrow transplant in Ireland. Over the past 40 years, transplant expertise at St James’s Hospital has gone from strength to strength and the team has shown their dedication to the development of transplant services for those patients diagnosed with blood-related cancers in Ireland. I congratulate the hospital on this achievement and wish them continued success over the next 40 years.” 

With a growing and ageing population, the number of blood cancer cases in Ireland and globally continues to rise. Stem cell transplants (sometimes referred to as bone marrow transplants) are used to treat and cure many types of blood-related cancers such as leukaemia, lymphoma or multiple myeloma as well as rare bone marrow failure conditions and solid-organ tumours. The purpose of the transplant is to cure the blood cancer or keep the haematological disease in remission for as long as possible. 

In allogeneic stem cell transplantation, healthy stem cells are transplanted from one individual to another. Alternatively, in an autologous transplant the patient’s own stem cells are used. The first bone marrow transplant at St James’s Hospital was an allogeneic transplant where donor stem cells were harvested from a sibling in order to treat a patient with leukaemia. 

Mairsile Hourihane (pictured below, centre, with Kevin Rooney and fellow transplant recipient Mark Fagan) received a bone marrow transplant at St James’s Hospital in 1989 and was at today’s celebration. She said: 

“My diagnosis of CML nearly 40 years ago was the beginning of an uncertain and scary time in my life. After my diagnosis in St Vincent's Hospital, I was under the care of excellent haematologists with a support team at St James’s Hospital, who ultimately saved my life. Even though the service was in its infancy when I received my bone marrow transplant, I always knew that I was lucky to be in the best place with the best team looking after me, and I am delighted to be here to celebrate all that the team continues to achieve.” 

Three people pictured in a garden, smiling

The work of the Stem Cell Transplantation Service is supported by many departments and organisations within St James’s Hospital/Trinity St James’s Cancer Institute and beyond. In particular, links with clinical teams within the hospital including the intensive care unit, close liaison with the Irish Unrelated Donor Registry and the Irish Blood Transfusion Service are crucial to find compatible donors for those who do not have a suitably matched family donor and to ensure that complications for patients are kept at a minimum. 

Since its inception, the transplant unit has been supported by the Bone Marrow for Leukaemia Trust, a charitable organisation, which has provided equipment, contributed to funding for staff and the development of accommodation for patients post their stem cell transplant. 

Six people pose formally

Above, l to r are: Prof. Anne-Marie Brady, Professor of Nursing + Chronic Illness (School of Nursing & Midwifery), Prof. John Kennedy, Co-Director of the Trinity St James's Cancer Institute, Catherine Mullarkey (Chairperson, St James's Hospital Board), Minister Stephen Donnelly, Dr Catherine Flynn and Prof. Mary Day (CEO, St James's)

Dr Catherine Flynn, Consultant Haematologist and Associate Clinical Professor at the Trinity St James’s Cancer Institute, said: 

“This anniversary is a huge achievement for all St James’s staff, past and present. Since 1984, we have provided stem cell and bone marrow transplants to over 3,750 patients, improving rates of survival for patients with blood cancer and giving them fresh hope. Looking after our increasing number of transplant survivors is a privilege but also presents a growing challenge. Our service would not be able to run without our dedicated nursing staff and colleagues throughout the hospital. We work very closely with bodies such as the Irish Blood Transfusion Service and are very grateful to the many stem cell donors from all over the world. We are hopeful that we can continue to grow our service through adequate support and resources.” 

Acknowledging this milestone in cancer care in Ireland, Professor Mary Day, St James’s Hospital Chief Executive Officer said: 

“St James’s Hospital has a long history of stem cell and bone marrow transplant and this anniversary would not have been reached without the clinical expertise that we have accumulated and developed. The ground-breaking work of our expert clinicians, such as Professor McCann, has allowed us to cement our place as a world leader in cancer care and led us to the establishment of the Trinity St James’s Cancer Institute, the first OECI-accredited cancer institute in Ireland.” 



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