Every year, tens of thousands of lives could be saved from a simple bone marrow transplant. On World bone Marrow Day, healthcare professionals seek to educate the public about the importance of transplants to treat a wide range of diseases.
This weekend, college students from all over the country canvassed to recruit potential donors for an upcoming bone marrow drive. According to a report from Forbes, the campaign is focused on young adults, who have the highest chance of successfully pairing with a recipient and making a donation.
Every year, at least 20,000 people in the United States develop diseases that could be treated or cured with a transplant of bone marrow or cord blood. These diseases include lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, marrow failure, and sickle cell disease.
Bone marrow transplants are in woefully short supply, however. Just 6,300 bone marrow transplants were carried out last year, and an estimated 1,000 people die annually because they can’t find a donor. To make matters worse, only 30 percent of patients who need a bone marrow transplant are compatible with someone in their family. There is a strong need for more donors, especially for minorities.
Caucasians have a 93 percent chance of finding a bone marrow donor through registries, but black patients only have a 66 percent chance of finding a match. Since minorities make up smaller percentages of the total U.S. population, there are more genes that could make compatibility an issue. The U.S. population is 77 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic, 14 percent African-American, 5 percent Asian, and under 2 percent Native American and Pacific Islanders. There is a huge variation in the genetic matching, referred to as HLA-type, between people with African and mixed heritages, significantly reducing the likelihood of finding a match.
Experts believe the biggest barrier to increasing donor rates is a lack of awareness on the matter. Jay Feinberg, diagnosed with leukemia at age 22, learned from his doctor that because of the great loss of life suffered by his Jewish ancestors in World War II, the chances of him finding a genetic match were extremely slim. Feinberg searched for four years before he discovered a compatible donor. He founded the Gift of Life Bone marrow Foundation, successfully building a registry that has increased the likelihood of finding a match for Eastern European, or Ashkenazi Jews to 80 percent.
As more people become aware of the importance of bone marrow and how difficult it can be to find a match, registries have grown across the country. In the United States, the two largest bone marrow donation groups are Feinberg’s Gift of Life and the far-reaching Be the Match organization, which is run by the National Marrow Donor Program. Be the Match receives funding from the C.W. Bill Young Cell Transplantation Program, and feeds into the Bone Marrow Data Worldwide registry where 25 million people are currently listed as potential donors.
Bone marrow transplants are a difficult process, and were previously used as a treatment for only the most serious cases of cancer. Now, they are recognized as the only true cure for the painful sickle cell disease. Bone marrow transplants have proven successful at curing the disease at a rate of 90 percent.
Bone marrow can be donated three different ways. The method used 80 percent of the time entails collecting packed blood stem cells from a blood draw. The older technique, which is used much less frequently, involves obtaining marrow by drawing it from the pelvic bone with a needle. Patients are typically under anesthesia when this is performed.
The third method uses cord blood, which can be used even if the genetic match is only partial. Cord blood is obtained from the umbilical cord and placenta during childbirth and causes no harm or discomfort to the mother or the baby as it is collected. The blood can be stored so it is readily available for a patient in need.
As bone marrow registries grow, people have the option to donate in a way that suits them and can potentially help save thousands of lives.