Is leukapheresis safe?

The human blood system consists of the 100 000 kilometres of blood vessels and the heart as it pumps. Within these vast blood vessels, the blood cells flow and carry its functions. Red blood cells bring oxygen and nutrients for the cells whereas white blood cells help to fight bleeding. Most blood cells are made in the bone marrow and are constantly replaced. If you ask a doctor, you would know that things could go wrong with the blood cells causing it to become a cancer instead. One of the treatments used to treat blood cell cancer is leukapheresis.

Leukapheresis is derived from the Latin words of ‘leuk’ which means white and ‘apheresis’ meaning to take away. In medical terms, leukapheresis describes the collection process of white blood cells. Leukapheresis is a procedure that removes the abnormal white blood cells from the blood and returns the other blood components back to the body. Although leukapheresis may seem like to be treatment for white blood cancers, usually in patient with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), leukapheresis may be needed in patient with very high white blood cell counts not caused by cancer such as leukostasis or hyperleukocytosis. Reasons being why leukapheresis seem to be typically associated with CLL is patients with CLL often presented with a very high number of white blood cells and only be able to be diagnosed with CLL when this occurs. This high number of white blood cells thicken the blood and cause blood circulation problems. The thicken blood is also contributed by the leukaemia cells.

Some might wonder if leukapheresis is safe. Leukapheresis is generally safe because the treatment itself is not painful and the procedure itself is not invasive. The leukapheresis procedure will take around 2 to 4 hours. During leukapheresis, two intravenous lines are placed into the body. One line will remove the blood and the other line will carry the blood that has been cleaned to be returned to the body. The blood is cleaned by passing through a machine that removes the white blood cells, both healthy white blood cells and leukaemia cells. In some cases, doctors might use a central line if a patient does have one instead of using the two intravenous lines. Central line is a single large catheter placed in the neck or under the collar bones.

Since the white blood cells have been removed, a person may be prone to infections. Hence, patients are usually placed in an isolation room for observation. Leukapheresis works immediately to lower the number of leukaemia but only as a temporary measure. During this time, treatments such as chemotherapy or targeted therapy have more chances to work effectively.

Just as with any other procedure, leukapheresis does have side effects. Symptoms occur as the blood volume is lower than before the procedure and the possibility of the blood calcium level to drop. Common side effects include dizziness, numbness and tingling of the hands, feet or mouth, low blood pressure, weak pulse and painful muscle spasm. Patients that experience side effects during or after the procedure, need to let their healthcare provider know. Leukapheresis may cause uncomfortable feeling and irritability due to the long sitting or lying down for hours during the procedure.

There are things a person can do before undergoing leukapheresis. By being well prepared before the procedure, it can help reduce potential complications and helps a person to feel okay during the whole procedure. Below are what can be done to prepare for a leukapheresis procedure:

  • Get a good quality sleep the night before the procedure.
  • Avoid drinking caffeinated beverages on the day of the procedure.
  • Drink plenty of fluids days before the procedure.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol at all cost
  • Eat a well-balanced meal beforehand approximately 2 hours before the procedure, unless the doctor said otherwise and avoid eating food high in fats, oils or grease.
  • Wear appropriate and comfortable clothing.

It can be concluded that leukapheresis is a procedure that removes white blood cells. It is generally a safe procedure and it is usually done by a trained health professional. Leukapheresis helps to eliminate leukaemia cells and to provide a chance for cancer treatments to work better. Leukapheresis in patients with non-cancer disease is done to alleviate the symptoms caused by the high count of the white blood cells before it affects the blood circulation.

Leukapheresis also works to collect white blood cells from healthy people. The collected white blood cells are used for donation. The donated white blood cells are used to help patients in need of white blood cell transfusion such as those with infection diseases that do not respond well with antibiotics. The donated white blood cells are also used by researchers to help understand immune diseases and cancer better. It also helps to improve the current immunotherapy treatment so that better treatments can be made available.

Ask your healthcare provider for more details on leukapheresis. If you are interested in donating your blood for a good cause, go to a nearby healthcare facility for more information on how to get involved.

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