Five Things to Know about Bone Marrow Donation

By Staff Writer - September 14, 2018

Did you know doctors diagnose one person with a blood cancer every three minutes, and every 10 minutes someone loses their battle with the disease? Thousands of patients with blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, sickle-cell disease or other life-threatening conditions depend on bone marrow donation to save their life. 

However, only 30 percent of patients in need of a transplant have a genetic match in their family. That means an overwhelming majority of patients, 70 percent, must find someone outside of their family to donate bone marrow. 

1. What is a bone marrow transplant?

Healthy marrow and blood cells are necessary to sustain life. When marrow cannot function properly, a marrow or cord blood transplant could be the best treatment option, and for some patients, offers the only potential cure. 

A bone marrow transplant takes a donor’s healthy blood-forming cells and puts them into the patient’s bloodstream, where they begin to grow and make healthy red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Patients undergo chemotherapy and sometimes radiation to destroy their diseased marrow before a donor's healthy blood-forming cells are given during a transplant. 

2. How do I become a donor?

Joining the bone marrow registry is the first step in becoming a donor. When you join at a community drive, you will get a registration kit to swab your cheek cells. The sample you provide will be tissue typed and entered into the registry, so doctors can search and find a matching donor for their patient. If you join online, you will receive your kit in the mail along with a set of instructions. The two largest organizations in America where you can register are Gift of Life and Be the Match. 

3. Who can join?

Anyone between the ages of 18 to 60 who meets the health guidelines and is willing to donate to any patient in need is able to join the registry. Doctors request donors in the 18-44 age range most often because research has shown that cells from younger donors lead to better long-term survival for patients after transplant. 

People between the ages of 18 to 44 are encouraged to join online or at a community drive for free. Those between the ages of 45 to 60 are welcome to join the registry but must join online and pay a fee to cover the cost of joining. 

4. What role does ethnicity play?

Human leukocyte antigen (HLA) typing is used to match patients and donors for bone marrow transplants. When it comes to matching HLA types, a patient’s ethnic background is important in predicting the likelihood of finding a match. This is because HLA markers used in matching are inherited. Some ethnic groups have more complex tissue types than others. A person’s best chance of finding a donor may be with someone of the same ethnic background. Adding more members who increase the ethnic diversity of the registry increases the variety of tissue types available, helping more patients find the match they need. 

To increase the diversity of the registry, donors who identify as the following are especially needed:

  • Black or African American
  • American Indian or Alaska Native
  • Asian, including South Asian
  • Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
  • Hispanic or Latino
  • Multiracial 

5. What is the donation process like?

The patient's doctor asks for either a donation of marrow or peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC), depending on what is best for the patient. 

Donating bone marrow is a surgical procedure done under general or regional anesthesia in a hospital. During the procedure, doctors use needles to withdraw liquid marrow from the back of the pelvic bone. 

A PBSC donation is a nonsurgical procedure done in an outpatient clinic. PBSC donors receive daily injections of a drug called filgrastim for five days to increase the number of blood-forming cells in the bloodstream. Then, through a process called apheresis, a donor's blood is removed through a needle in one arm and passed through a machine that separates out the blood-forming cells. The remaining blood is returned to the donor through the other arm.

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