New apheresis unit revolutionizing transfusion medicine in the UAE

The UAE has always been praised for its blood transfusion safety services, and now, the recent introduction of phlebotomy has revolutionized blood transfusion medicine, putting the country on the global healthcare map.

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

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

Dr Heba Al Humaidan, Consultant Clinical Pathologist and Head of Transfusion Medicine Services and Apheresis Unit at SSMC said: “Our new Apheresis unit has already made a huge difference for us with the latest technology that provides adding support to some of our key specialties such as Hematology. and tumors.”

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

Among the first successful cases treated with transfusion medicine is the case of 64-year-old Emirati citizen Mohammed Al Shehhi who was diagnosed with a very rare cutaneous lymphoma (T-cell lymphoma, also known as Sézary syndrome) in mid-2019.

For eight months, Al Shehhi received various treatments in the UAE without any improvement, and recommended extracorporeal photopheresis (ECP), a non-invasive procedure for phlebotomy in which white blood cells are separated, treated with certain medications and then exposed to ultraviolet light. During a visit to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, USA. While Al-Shehhi saw significant improvement with this treatment at the 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 to me, which means I no longer have to travel abroad to get treatment for long periods of time,” Al Shehhi said.

Dr. Mosteqeem Seddiqi, Vice President, Head of Practice and Consultant in the Department of Hematology and Oncology at SSMC explained: “As a pioneer in complex human-centered care, we are very pleased to offer this innovative technology and treatment to benefit all the people of the UAE. This is truly a paradigm shift in delivering care in the region and put Abu Dhabi on the global healthcare map.”

Dr. Nikita Singh, Specialist Internal Medicine at Aster Clinic, Business Bay, said that the UAE was declared the Capital of Vigilance Worldwide in 2017. Blood monitoring is a procedure to report the unwanted effects of blood transfusions to ensure the safety and efficacy of blood transfusions. “Blood transfusion can be a double-edged sword in the sense that while blood transfusion can have unwanted and harmful side effects, it can also be life-saving if the right resources are available as they are in the UAE,” she said.

She added, “We have now made a huge leap in transfusion medicine with the recent introduction of phlebotomy, which has revolutionized transfusion medicine. As a doctor, I am very happy to see this innovative technology in the UAE. This is a tremendous advance in the ever-evolving field of medicine.”

According to Dr. Al-Humaidan, successful symptomatic improvement is observed in almost all cases of apheresis because it is a supportive treatment. “Apheresis is a supportive therapy for a larger treatment plan for patients, and therefore, it is difficult to determine the success rate as there are indications that Category 1 is very successful and then there is Category 3. But in general, it is successful when used as directed.”

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 a tube to a machine that separates the blood into its components. The affected component is either removed or replaced, while the rest of the blood components are pumped back into the patient.

The entire process can take anywhere from two to four hours.

Fast facts from 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 number 55-60 per month.
  • Each patient may require anything between one procedure to >20 depending on the condition and protocol
  • Of these, 80 photocoagulations have been performed (since launched in March/April 2022) on eight patients all enrolled in a specific program with a specific protocol that varies from person to person.

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