Midland medics have saved the life of a schoolteacher with a deadly aggressive form of leukaemia after flying stem cells half way around the world from Australia in the first treatment of its kind in the region.

The pioneering move using umbilical cords by haematologists at Heartlands Hospital is giving new hope to blood cancer patients, many of whom have died because they were unable to find a bone marrow donor.

After four bouts of chemotherapy, mother-of-two Pauline Slater, a 65-year-old retired teacher from Maple Hayes special school in Lichfield, was selected to have stem cells from two umbilical cords, which contain bone marrow, transfused into her body as there was no donor and she had no siblings that could be a match.

Frozen stem cells were sent to Heartlands, in Bordesley Green, from a cord bank in Australia, defrosted in a special machine and then put in a special solution and carried into Mrs Slater’s body in a similar vein to a blood transfusion. Once in the body, cells home into the “blood factory” and can replenish the supply of healthy bone marrow that has been attacked by the disease.

Dr Don Milligan, consultant clinical haematologist, said: “Usually a tissue match is found from a family member or through the international registry for a transplant.

“In the past, if we failed to find a live donor, we have been stuck but this time we searched the umbilical cord register too. Umbilical cord cells have only been used on children so far, as there are not many stem cells in a cord and not enough for an adult. But work in America showed that if cells from two umbilical cords are combined there is enough to transplant for an adult. So two were matched from two babies’ cords. We found matching cords in Australia and did the transplant on July 30. Mrs Slater’s blood count has come up significantly in six weeks.”

Dr Milligan, with 20 years’ experience in transplants, added: “This will be used for patients where there is no other choice and the disease is fatal. We are interested in doing more on the right patients, in the right circumstances, but it is still experimental.”

Mrs Slater was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia in January and lost hope of a cure when a matching foreign donor failed a medical.