The need for bone marrow transplant also known as stem cell transplant is growing day by day. Every year around 5,000 people in America undergo this surgery. It is a type of surgery which involves the replacement of damaged or infected bone marrow with the healthy one.
In order to have a successful surgery, the patient’s bone marrow is removed completely as well as its immune system by the help of chemotherapy and radiation. The healthy cells of a donor are administered into the blood via a vein (intravenously). This allows the cells to grow.
Bone marrow transplant is used to treat several health conditions like multiple myeloma, leukemia, nonmalignant disorders like sickle cell anemia, and lymphomas.
Like other organ transplants, a bone marrow transplant is based on finding a donor who has matched human leukocyte antigens (HLA) with the patient.
Dr. Ernesto Ayala, a hematologist of Mayo Clinic and an associated member of Bone marrow Transplant Program says that “HLA stands for human leukocyte antigens, which are proteins or markers on the surface of the cells.”The body’s immune system uses these markers to recognize which cells belong in your body and which do not.”
“We want the donor to be HLA identical with the patient or as close as possible. This is critical for the success of the transplant.”
Dr. Ayala explains that their first preference for a donor is the patient’s family. “On average, we will find a donor in the patient’s family only 20% to 25% of the time. And then there are patients who do not have siblings or children. The next best option is to go to the registry for a match.”
‘Be The Match’ is an organization which is running for 30 years helping bone marrow transplant patients to match with their donors. It is helping people internationally. One of the partners of Be The Match is the Mayo Clinic in the U.S.
There are around 12 million bone marrow donors in the U.S. Still Dr. Ayala is eager to support and grow the international bone marrow donors and related organizations as he says that finding a matched donor is not a piece of cake.
He further explains, “The biggest challenge we have in finding donors for patients needing bone marrow transplantation is ethnicity.”
“For a Caucasian American, the chance of finding an HLA-matched bone marrow donor through the international registry is around 75%. But if the patient belongs to an ethnic minority, let’s say, African American or Hispanic or Middle Eastern, then the chance of finding a donor in the registry drastically drops to less than 25%, meaning many of these patients may never receive a transplant.”
Dr. Ayala encourages people to start supporting the patients by explaining that in order “to become a bone marrow donor, you go bethematch.com; provide some demographic information, such as your age, gender, and location; and request a kit. When you receive the kit, you swab your cheek, put it back in the envelope, seal it and send it. That’s it.”
If someone HLA gets matched to a patient, the organization will immediately contact that person. “They will say, ‘We need you.’ And then they will set up a time for you to come to a transplant center such as Mayo Clinic. You’ll have a medical evaluation—reviewing your medical history, physical, some blood tests—just to make sure you are a healthy donor, and then you will be cleared for the donation.”
If the patient’s doctor goes for the bone marrow taken out from the pelvis, the patient will stay overnight and will be operated under anesthesia. However, if the doctor chose peripheral blood stem cell graft, there won’t be any need for the patient to stay overnight.
In both cases the donors will recover their health back within 2 to 3 days. Dr. Ayala concludes it by saying, “I believe being a bone marrow donor is an act of generosity,” says Dr. Ayala. “The more donors we have in the registry, the more donors we will have for our patients, especially for ethnic minorities. The need remains critical.”