Every year, ten thousand people are diagnosed with conditions that require bone marrow transplants. These include cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, as well as chronic diseases such as sickle cell anemia. Though these are life-threatening illnesses, lives can be saved through the process of bone marrow transplants.
Healthy bone marrow is necessary for life and is responsible for making most of the body’s blood cells as well as fat, cartilage and bone cells. Located inside of the bones in the medullary cavities, the marrow is a spongy, gelatinous tissue that contains mesenchymal cells and hematopoietic cells. Mesenchymal cells are also called marrow stromal cells and produce fat, cartilage and bone cells. Hematopoietic cells are concerned with hematopoiesis or blood cell production.
The bone marrow produces approximately two hundred million new red blood cells per day. It also produces white blood cells (which fight infection) and platelets (which help the blood to clot). Hematopoietic cells are stem cells that form in the marrow and are released into the blood stream upon maturity. Production is constant; red cells live for about 120 days, white cells live anywhere from a few hours up to a few days, and platelets live for about ten days.
People who suffer from blood related illnesses often need transplants. and in order for the procedure to be successful, a patient must first be matched with a suitable donor. Thirty percent of people find matches within their families, but seventy percent must rely on unrelated donors. Because these situations are dire and finding a match is difficult, it is vital to keep expanding the donor pool.
The good news is that it’s so easy to get started!
Be The Match is operated by the National Bone Marrow Donor Program and is dedicated to helping patients get life-saving transplants. Ideal donors are between the ages of eighteen and forty-four. This is because younger donors lead to more successful transplants. You can still donate up to the age of sixty, but will have to pay the current fee of one hundred dollars if you are forty-five or older.
If you are interested in becoming a potential donor, the process begins with an on-line registration to determine if you meet basic qualifications. If you are accepted, you will receive a DNA collection kit in the mail. The DNA is collected in just seconds via painless cheek swabs and then sent back. That’s it! Once you are in the database, you are available to be matched.
Your DNA sample can now be used to compare specific protein markers called human leukocyte antigens, or HLA markers, with those of patients who need a transplant. HLA markers are found on almost every cell in the body and the immune system uses them to tell which cells belong in your body and which don’t. A minimum of six HLA markers must match between a donor and a recipient, but sometimes doctors require a stronger match – between eight or even ten HLA markers. The better the match, the better the chance of a successful procedure.
If a match is discovered and you are able to follow through with your donation, your bone marrow will be harvested in one of two ways. The first is called a peripheral blood stem cell donation and it is the more common of the two collection methods. It involves a non-surgical procedure called apheresis, which filters blood-forming cells out for the transplant patient and returns the rest back to the donor. Prior to the collection you will be given injections of a medicine called filgrastim for five days. This increases the number of stem cells in your blood. The experience is similar to the process of donating blood and is done via a needle in the arm. The other collection method is done in the operating room under general anesthesia and involves harvesting the cells directly from the backside of your pelvic bone. The physician in charge of the case will decide which method to use.
Risks associated with being a bone marrow donor are rare. Some side effects can occur, but are minimal. Only one in four hundred and thirty people will match a transplant candidate, but imagine saving a life – or having your own life saved – by such a simple process!