Every year families of mainly young people under 25 with leukaemia and other serious blood disorders have to watch their loved ones die, when their lives could potentially be saved by a bone marrow stem cell transplant – if only a match could be found.
The South African Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR) has 73 000 bone marrow donors on its database, and The Sunflower Fund has another 2 419, but this is far from enough because the chance of finding a match is one in 100 000. While most siblings would eagerly donate, only about 30% are compatible. What patients desperately need is someone of the same tissue type, and the chance of finding them is best from someone of the same ethnic background, so a wide pool of different ethnic backgrounds is needed. Why not jump in and sign up?
Donating bone marrow stem cells is as painless as donating blood
The days of having needles drilled into your bones to extract marrow under general anaesthetic are gone, except under very rare circumstances, says Terry Schlaphoff, deputy director of the SABMR (which is accredited by the World Marrow Donor Association). Today all that’s required to sign up is to have a non-invasive cheek swab taken, or two vials of blood (depending on whether you’re registering at a public drive or telephonically).
This is sent for DNA analysis, then stored in the registry. If a match is found, you will be called for a second, high-resolution confirmatory test. If the tissue typing is confirmed, you’ll be given a quick injection daily for five days to stimulate the production of blood stem cells (the only possible side effects are like low-grade flu). Your stem cells will then be harvested. While you sit or lie back and relax for four to six hours, sometimes over two days, blood is drawn from your one arm, run through a cell separator machine to harvest cells, and returned through a second needle in your other arm. You should feel fine afterwards, as your body’s stem cells regenerate rapidly.
Donating bone marrow is easy
Registration is open to any healthy person between the ages of 18 and 45 with a consistent weight of more than 50kg and a BMI of less than 40 (morbidly obese). You simply contact either the SABMR, 021 447 8638, www.sabmr.co.za, which recently began recruiting donors digitally, or The Sunflower Fund, 0800 12 10 82, www.sunflowerfund.org. Both organisations are members of the World Marrow Donor Association.
The Sunflower Fund is also a founding member of the Stem Cell Registry Alliance (a joint initiative of registries and organisations from the UK, Caribbean and Africa committed to recruiting donors of African descent), and runs a stem cell registry for Africa with donor recruitment centres in Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana. (You can only be listed on one recognised registry.) After joining, you can change your mind about donating at any time, but most people are more than happy to go ahead. You remain registered until you are a match for a patient or turn 60 – whichever comes first. “Many people believe if they’re a blood donor or organ donor they’re automatically registered as stem cell donors,” says Kim Webster, head of communications for The Sunflower Fund. “This is not the case.”
Donating bone marrow is free
There’s no cost to join either the SABMR or Sunflower Fund registries or to be tested and have stem cells harvested (although any donations are welcome). Both organisations are non-profits and fund-raise to cover these costs, and to assist with the costs of the procedure for recipients, if they’re unable to pay.
Most importantly, donating bone marrow can save a life
Most recipients have leukaemia, marrow failure, aplasia (failure of an organ or tissue to develop or to function normally), or inherited metabolic or immune deficiency syndromes, and will have reached a stage where only a bone marrow stem cell transplant offers any chance of survival. Sadly there are no guarantees, and some patients may still die of complications, but you’ll have given them their best shot at life.
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