By Gord Bowes, News staff
Donors of all races are urgently needed by the OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network.
“We need to improve the diversity on our registry because currently 76 per cent of the people on it are Caucasian and that’s not the face of Canada,” says Sharr Cairns co-ordinator of donor management for organization.
The OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network is responsible for finding and matching volunteer donors to patients who require stem cell transplants. The patient could be suffering from one of more than 30 diseases and blood immune disorders, such as lymphoma or leukemia; the stem cells are used in transplants or transfusions to repair or rebuild the patient's immune system.
Donors male or female, from age 17 to 50, will be accepted for possible inclusion on the registry, says Cairns. But because a person's best chance of finding a matching donor is within his or her own ethnic group, it is important to have a wide ethnic diversity on the registry.
OneMatch also wants to attract young donors, between 17 and 35 years old, as they can be on the registry for a longer time. Male donors are preferred because recipients usually have less severe symptoms of graft-versus-host disease, a common complication of the process.
It does not matter for the recipient if the donor stem cells come from a male or female. Blood type also does not matter, because the recipient’s blood is basically zeroed before the transplant.
The registry is of vital importance because while the best match is from someone in your family, particularly a sibling, that isn’t always possible. And it's becoming increasingly more difficult as families become smaller.
“Only about 25 per cent of patients will find a match within their family," says Cairns. "The rest are going to come to OneMatch to find a donor.”
There are about 336,000 people on the registry in Canada and about 20 million on registries around the world.
Over the winter, there were more than 900 Canadians hoping to find a match for a stem cell transplant.
OneMatch doesn’t get involved in the transplant itself; it operates as a network to link donor and recipient.
It’s not difficult to get on the donor registry.
The first part of the registration process is a cheek swab to find inherited genetic markers called Human Leukocyte Antigens (HLA). The results are run through the registry to see if you are a potential match for someone. If so, there is a blood test to look for additional markers.
“At that stage, if you are a match, you are probably the only potential match in the world for that patient,” says Cairns. It’s also imperative the donor goes through with the process because to halt it at that stage is devastating to the person whose life depends on getting that transplant.
The donor is then prepared for the transplant procedure, which begins with injections for several days prior, in order to stimulate stem cell production.
The most common way, called apheresis, is to spin the stem cells out of the blood and return it to the person, as opposed to collecting whole blood, as it is during regular blood donations, and having it sent to a lab for separation.
“We’re taking the laboratory and putting it right beside you in the hospital,” says Cairns.
It takes between four and six hours and is the preferred way of dealing with severe conditions such as leukemia and lymphomas.
The other way is through bone marrow procedure, where pure stem cells are extracted from the hip bone through a needle. It is performed under general anesthesia.
The third way is to extract stem cells from an umbilical cord at birth; it’s the purest source and more flexible match, but quantity is limited.
If all works as it should, the transplanted stem cells should start harvesting in the bone marrow and start reproducing in the body of the recipient.
Anyone interested in becoming a donor, can register or find out more information, including a quiz for a prospective donor, at OneMatch.ca. They’ll be sent a kit where a volunteer can take their own cheek swab and send it back in a postage-paid envelope. A few weeks later, they will receive a letter telling them they are on the registry.
“It’s okay if this isn’t for you,” says Cairns. “Donate blood, it only takes an hour.”