Leukemia patients at five medical centers in the United States are receiving transplants of their healthy bone marrow cells to determine how effective the procedure is in conjunction with chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

Leukemia is a disease causing abnormal growth of white blood corpuscles.

The new technique, called "autologous marrow transplant," involves freezing bone marrow cells taken at a time when the disease is in remission, and then returning the healthy cells to the patient after subsequent treatment with drugs or radiation.

"The stored marrow, you see, gives us the option of using very high doses of chemotherapy and radiation -- doses which are actually lethal because they destroy the majority of bone marrow cells in the patient," said Dr. W. Ralph Vogler, professor of medicine at Emory University's Woodruff Medical Center.

In the case of the one Emory patient who has received a trasnplant, marrow cells were taken from a hip bone while her leukemia was in remission after chemotherapy. The cells were frozen in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of 180 degrees below zero Centigrade.

When the leukemia returned, standard chemotherapy did not produce a second remission," Vogler said.

A combination of high doses of chemotherapy and total body radiation was administered to kill cancerous cells. Then doctors thawed the frozen marrow and returned the cells to the patient.

"This treatment has produced a second remission in the patient," Vogler said. "The patient's been doing fine for six to eight months."

Vogler said that before the dangerous procedure is considered widely applicable, leukemia in a large percentage of patients must go into remission for three to five years.

Besides Emory, others involved in the program are Duke University Medical Center, Washington University at St. Louis, University of Florida and Case Western Reserve University at Cleveland.