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New Apheresis unit revolutionises transfusion medicine in UAE

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The unit Sheikh Shakhbout Medical City widens the treatment scope, including rare lymphoma of the skin.

The UAE has always been praised for its blood transfusion safety services, and now, the recent introduction of apheresis is further revolutionising blood transfusion medicine, placing the country on the global map of healthcare.

Sheikh Shakhbout Medical City (SSMC), a joint-venture partnership between Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (SEHA) and Mayo Clinic, recently established an ssApheresis Unit as part of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. The brand-new unit, which is the only one of its kind in the UAE, will be part of transfusion medicine services.

Transfusion medicine is a branch of medicine that involves laboratory testing for blood components, clinical transfusion practices, patient blood management, and apheresis. The Apheresis Unit will provide support for a wide range of specialties, including hematology and oncology, nephrology, neurology, dermatology and the bone marrow transplant programme.

Dr. Hiba AlHumaidan, consultant clinical pathologist and the head of Transfusion Medicine Services and the Apheresis Unit at SSMC, said: “Our new apheresis unit has already been a huge game changer for us with the state-of-the-art technology providing an added support to some of our key specialties like hematology and oncology.”

“The potential of the transfusion medicine service is incredibly exciting, we are able to support the management of a wide range of conditions and with plans to grow further, we can provide new technologies and procedures to help more people in the UAE who may be eligible for such treatments,” she added.

Among the first successful cases treated through transfusion medicine was that of 64-year-old Emirati Mohamed Al-Shehhi who was diagnosed with a very rare lymphoma of the skin (cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, also known as Sezary syndrome) in the middle of 2019.

For eight months, Al-Shehhi received various treatments in the UAE without any improvement and was recommended extracorporeal photopheresis therapy (ECP), a non-surgical apheresis procedure where the white blood cells are separated, treated with specific medication, then exposed to UVA light during a visit to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, USA. While Al-Shehhi experienced a significant improvement with this therapy at Mayo Clinic, the treatment was not available in the UAE at the time.

“Being able to access this treatment here, in my home country, has made a huge difference for me and means I no longer have to travel abroad to seek treatment for long periods of time,” according to Al-Shehhi.

Dr. Mustaqeem Siddiqui, Vice Chair and Practice Chair and Consultant in the Division of Hematology and Oncology at SSMC, explained: “As a pioneer in complex, human-centered care, we are extremely happy to bring this technology and innovative treatment to benefit all people of the UAE. This is truly transforming the delivery of care in the region and further placing Abu Dhabi on the global map of healthcare.”

Dr. Nikita Singh, Specialist Internal Medicine at Aster Clinic, Business Bay, said that the UAE was declared the capital of hemovigilance globally in 2017. Hemovigilance is the procedure of reporting undesirable effects of transfusion to ensure the safety and efficacy of blood transfusion. “Blood transfusion as such can be a double-edged sword in the sense that while transfusion can have unwanted and detrimental side effects, it can prove to be life-saving if the right resources are available as they are in UAE,” she said.

She added: “We have now taken a giant leap in transfusion medicine with the recent introduction of apheresis which has revolutionised transfusion medicine. As a doctor, I am extremely delighted to see this innovative technology in the UAE. This is massive progress in the field of constantly evolving medicine.”

According to Dr. AlHumaidan successful improvement of symptoms in almost all apheresis cases are noticed since it is a supportive treatment. “Apheresis is a supportive treatment to a bigger treatment plan for patients and hence, it’s difficult to state the success rate as there are indications that is a very successful category 1 and then there is a category 3. But generally speaking, it is successful when it is used according to the guidelines.”

Apheresis is a medical procedure that supports the management of more than 80 different conditions and diseases. This is done by directing the blood in the patient’s veins through tubing to a machine that separates the blood into its components. The diseased component is either removed or replaced, while the remainder of the blood components are reinfused back into the patient.

The entire process can take between two to four hours.

QUICK FACTS by SSMC

  • Since the opening of the Apheresis Unit in June 2021, 425 procedures have been performed
  • The number of procedures increased from three per month to the current 55-60 per month.
  • Each patient may need anything between one procedure to >20 depending on the condition and the protocol
  • Of these procedures, 80 photopheresis procedures were done (since it launched in March/April 2022) for eight patients who are all enrolled in a specific programme with a specific protocol that varies from one person to another
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