“You need a bone marrow transplant but there is no match.” are among the most frightening words a person may hear.
For certain types of cancer (multiple myeloma, lymphoma, or leukemia, myelodysplastic syndrome, amyloidosis) and non-malignant diseases (myelofibrosis and aplasic anemia) a blood stem cell transplant (BMT) may be the best chance for a cure. Although there are two types of transplant; autologous where the patient receives their own stem cells and allogeneic where the patient needs stem cells from a donor, this article is focused only on the challenges that are unique to the allogeneic transplant.
In order for the patient who has one of the diseases listed above, to be able to undergo an allogeneic stem cell transplant, he/she must have a donor who is a genetic match. The best chance for a match is a full sibling, since ½ of our genes are inherited from each of our parents. When the patient either has no siblings or none of the siblings are a match, an unrelated donor must be found. The National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) is an organization that has facilitated over 25,000 unrelated stem cell transplants since 1987. The NMDP maintains a registry of over 6 million potential unrelated donors world wide.
In spite of this huge number of potential unrelated donors, there are still many patients who do not have a suitable “match” in order to proceed to transplant. Since genes are inherited, the most likely source of a match who is not a sibling is from someone of the same racial and ethnic group. Unfortunately, many minority populations are sorely under-represented in the donor registry, limiting the opportunity for some patients to receive their best chance at a cure. There is a great need to recruit additional donors but in particular, those who identify themselves as American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, native Hawaiian, Other Pacific Islander and multiple race are in most need.
Becoming a possible stem cell donor is easy – a few swabs of the inside of your mouth is all it takes to get a sample that will include you in the NMDP registry, and you can do it in the comfort of your own home. The next time someone asks you or a family member what they can do to help you through your cancer journey, ask them to join the NMDP stem cell donor registry. Contact the NMDP registry by going to www.marrow.org and clicking on the link to Donor Resources/How to Join or call 703-970-3180 for more information about becoming a stem cell donor.
Becoming a donor can be very rewarding. After a certain period of time, donors and recipients have an opportunity to meet, if both agree. Such meetings are always an emotional experience for all involved. Recently, one patient who received a transplant from an unrelated donor said in an anonymous note to her donor “My husband and I want to thank you for your generous gift…a new chance at life!”- a simple, but powerful, message. You too can give the gift of life. I invite you to consider being part of the National Marrow Donor Program registry.
By Donna Eichna, MSN, AP-RN, OCN
In-Patient Stem Cell Transplant Coordinator
Inova Fairfax Hospital Stem Cell Transplant Program