Easier than you think: 9 facts about making a stem cell or bone marrow donation

May 6, 2016 | by City of Hope

This year, 70 percent of the estimated 20,000 patients fighting blood cancers and other hematologic malignancies who need a bone marrow or stem cell transplant will not find a match within their family. This means that their best chance of survival will depend on finding a match with an unrelated donor.

That’s why national registries devoted to recruiting and collating bone marrow and stem cell donations, such as the Be The Match Registry, are so essential. Since 1976, donors to Be The Match, with which City of Hope partners, have provided thousands of transplant patients with a second chance at life.

On Friday, May 6, City of Hope held its 40th annual “Celebration of Life” bone marrow transplant reunion to honor the beneficiaries who have received transplants at City of Hope – thanks to matches made through Be The Match and other national registries – along with their families and donors.

“For my staff and the donors, it’s the day we re-energize and realize why our work is so important,” said Be the Match program director Jill Kendall.

Even as the program has national bone marrow and stem cell registries have grown, many patients, particularly those of minority descent, still seek a matching donor. Their odds of finding one increase each time someone joins the registry.

For those looking to contribute to this lifesaving effort, here are answers to some basic, yet essential, questions about bone marrow donations and transplants.

1. Why do patients need bone marrow and stem cells from unrelated donors?

Some patients are able to donate their own stem cells, a process called an autologous transplant. However, many patients, depending on their age, cancer type and overall health, require an allogeneic transplant for best results. (“Allo” means other.) A patient’s brother or sister has a 25 percent chance of matching his or her HLA (human leukocyte antigen) type. When no siblings match, the patient will need a match from an unrelated donor.

2. Who qualifies to join the registry?

People ages 18 to 44 who pass the health questionnaire in the application process and who are not currently in the military are qualified to join the registry for free.

3. Who qualifies as a donor?

Donors must be between the ages of 18 and 60. They are assessed for their commitment, health and well-being. A person may be a donor regardless of his or her sexual orientation.

4. Is there a need for special kinds of donors?
Yes. Minorities and people of mixed race have a harder time finding a match in the registry because fewer are represented. Because ethnic makeup determines who would be the best match, the registry would benefit greatly from an increase in racial diversity.

5. How do I join the registry?
You can join the Be The Match registry online or at a local donor registry drive in your area. Once you receive a DNA sample kit in the mail, you swab the four corners of your cheeks for cells and return the kit. Your DNA is tested and your HLA type is entered in a national database.

6. What happens if I’m a match?

Every medical professional involved cares about the health of both donors and patients. Therefore, you will be screened to assess your health and HLA type. If you are still the best match, you will be invited to a counseling session to ensure that you understand the process, the risks involved and the timeline. If everything is a go, a donation date will be scheduled.

7. Where do I donate?

The Be The Match registry will find a donation center in the region nearest to the donor’s home. The stem cell or bone marrow donation is then transported by special courier to the transplant hospital.

8. What is the donation process?

There are two ways to donate stem cells: bone marrow donation and hematopoietic stem cell donation. The patient’s doctor must determine the donation method that offers the best chance for the patient’s survival. Today, 80 percent of donations are peripheral blood stem cell transplants (PBSTs), during which stem cells are harvested from the blood through a process called apheresis that is similar to a blood transfusion. The remaining 20 percent are bone marrow transplants, during which a large needle is used to harvest bone marrow directly from the donor’s hip bones while he or she is under general anesthesia.

9. Do patients and donors ever meet?

Often, patients and donors will never meet. However, after a one-year waiting period in the U.S., if both donor and patient agree, they can contact each other. For patients this can be a wonderful opportunity to thank the person who gave them the gift of life, while donors can appreciate the extraordinary impact they have had on another’s life.

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If you would like donate stem cells or bone marrow to a City of Hope patient, please go to City of Hope Be The Match. If you are looking for a second opinion or consultation about your treatment, request an appointment online or contact us at 800-826-HOPE. Please visit Making Your First Appointment for more information.

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