Hong Kong doctors hope stem cell treatment will ease boy's pain

Mainland boy, 3, who was abandoned by his parents, set to receive pioneering medicine

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 August, 2012, 7:42am

A three-year-old boy abandoned by his mainland parents after being born with an agonising and deadly skin disease is set to undergo a pioneering stem-cell treatment at the Hong Kong hospital where he has lived since birth, the South China Morning Post has learned.

Shun Shun's suffering has inspired a research team at the Prince of Wales Hospital's burns centre to develop a biological treatment using stem cells in the hope of giving him some relief from the painful blisters that cover his whole body due to the outer and inner layers of his skin being unable to bond.

The hospital plans to launch an appeal for pregnant women to help Shun Shun by agreeing to donate their stem-cell-rich umbilical cords after giving birth.

Research team member Huang Lin told the Post: "We are hoping the treatment can make Shun Shun's skin stronger, so that he can at least leave the institution and live a relatively normal life like any other child.

"He has been staying in the hospital since he was born, and we don't want it to be his whole life. If his condition gets better, there may be a family who could afford to and are willing to adopt him."

The treatment has recently gained approval from the hospital's ethical committee, but it took the team some time to find and secure the consent of the boy's mother, one researcher said.

The woman is understood to have recently gained residency in the city and is in the process of officially making Shun Shun a ward of the Hong Kong government.

The little boy has so far spent his life wrapped in bandages. Medical staff spend at least three hours every day treating his sores with medicines to prevent infection and changing his bandages.

While medical institutions in other countries have pioneered other methods such as bone marrow transplants to treat the disease, these approaches all carry risks for the patient.

Next month, the team plan to start carrying out genetic testing on umbilical cords to find a match for Shun Shun.

Professor Andrew Burd, who heads the hospital's plastic, reconstructive and aesthetic department and is leading the research team, said: "We need to ensure that the donors consent to their use for actual treatment, and we will be doing more screening to ensure they are safe to use clinically."

The new stem cells will be incorporated into a biological dressing. If successful, it should improve the skin's capacity to connect the epidermis (outer skin) to the dermis again.

It is estimated that less than one per million people are born with Shun Shun's condition.

The hospital's burns centre has only seen three patients with the same illness. One of them was a young man in his 20s who died from the disease a few years ago.

The condition's symptoms vary widely. In mild cases, blistering may primarily affect the hands, feet, knees and elbows. Severe cases involve widespread blistering that can lead to vision loss, disfigurement, and other serious medical problems.