Assemblyman fights for life-saving bill

Jordan Serwin was 2 when his parents learned the La Cañada Flintridge boy had leukemia. He was 6 when an unusual treatment, a transplant of blood cells from an umbilical cord and placenta of a woman in New York, stopped the disease and set his life on a normal track.

"We went from having little hope that he would live to be 7 to finding the needle in the haystack," said Meghan Flanz, Serwin's mother.

Serwin is now 20, and a man who lived a few houses away from his family, Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D- La Cañada Flintridge), is pushing legislation that would dramatically expand the availability of the type of cord blood cells that saved Serwin's life.

"His mom told us how he had the transplant and how it saved his life," Portantino said. "It inspired my wife and I to say that if we had another child, we'd save that child's cord blood."

When in 2001 Portantino and his wife had a daughter, Bella, they sought to save the material from the umbilical cord for use by others, but were frustrated. Private blood banks would allow families to store frozen cord blood for their own relatives, but "we found out there was no public infrastructure in place to accept a donation," he said.

Cord blood contains plasma rich in stem cells. It has been used to address various forms of anemia and cancer, according to the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Stephen Feig, a now-retired pediatric oncologist who played a key role in Serwin's recovery, said the cells are also valuable for research purposes.

The federal government has established a cord blood bank in Minneapolis through the National Marrow Donor Program.

Yet cord blood treatment was not on the medical radar in California when Serwin was first diagnosed with leukemia. His parents put him through an intensive round of chemotherapy. The young boy appeared to be getting better. But after he came off the regimen, the leukemia returned with a vengeance, Flanz said.

Serwin was essentially living at UCLA Medical Center, watching movies on a hospital VCR while doctors searched for another option.

As Flanz recalls it, Feig located cord blood material that they could use from a New York woman. While the material did not match Jordan's blood type, it did share several genetic markers with Serwin, meaning the chances of success were high.

After another intensive round of chemo to prepare for treatment, Jordan received the cord blood. The expected seven to 21 days for the cells to begin regenerating stretched to 30, then 40.

"It was awful," Flanz said. "One doctor took me aside and said, 'Have you thought about funeral arrangements?'"

On Day 42, the cells started to multiply, and Serwin began to recover. Within a few months, he was out of the hospital and back in school in La Cañada.

Fourteen years later, the leukemia has not re-emerged. Serwin is now entering is senior year in film studies at Loyola Marymount University. One film he created for school, "Standing Up," about a comedian overcoming stage fright, is available on YouTube.

"Looking back on it," Serwin said, the time spent watching film after film in the hospital "is when I first decided I wanted to make movies."

Meanwhile, Serwin's story remains an inspiration for Portantino.

Elected to the Assembly in 2006, Portantino's first act was to establish the Umbilical Cord Blood Collection Fund. The measure passed, but was unfunded. This year, Portantino wrote Assembly Bill 52, which passed in the Assembly and on Wednesday was approved by the Senate Health Committee.

The bill would add $2 to the cost of a birth certificate in California, which is now $14, to raise an estimated $3.1 million a year for the fund. It also would move oversight of the bank from the state Department of Public Health to the University of California, which Portantino says is better suited to the task.

On Thursday, however, the Senate Appropriations Committee put the bill on hold.

According to a committee analysis, the bill might jeopardize an expected $417,000 federal grant because it shifts responsibility of the program from the state Department of Public Health and has other technical flaws.

Portantino said he will make the requested changes, and is looking to get the bill back on track.

"I am as surprised as everyone else that it was held," he said. "It is a bipartisan bill that saves lives and saves money and doesn't cost anything out of the General Fund."

FOR THE RECORD: This corrects an earlier version that listed Stephen Feig's occupation as a radiologist.

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