It is gratifying to read about the increased awareness of organ donations. The eyes, liver, kidneys, skin and lungs from brain dead people are being donated by their families. However, the need for bone marrow stem cell donations is overlooked.
Bone marrow constitutes only 4% of the total body mass of humans. Yet it is a very essential part of the human body. It is the flexible tissue found in the interior of bones. It produces approximately 500 billion blood cells per day which in turn transmit nutrients and oxygen throughout the body. It also plays a key part in producing the lymphocytes that support the body’s immune system.
It is estimated that around 2 lakh Indians suffer from various fatal blood disorders such as Aplastic Anaemia, drug-resistant Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia, Lymphoma, Thalassemia and Congenital Immunodeficiency. Their lives could be saved or extended by a life-saving bone marrow transplant or stem cell transplant.
There is a basic difference between some other organ donations and stem cell donations. Stem cells can only be harvested from a donor who is alive and not from a cadaver. In this process, the recipient’s own marrow is first killed with drugs or radiation, and then the new stem cells are introduced. The risk of infection for the recipient is very high and the patient must be kept in a sterile room.
There are two types of stem cell donors. One is from the patient. These are called autologous stem cell transplants. My late husband, Nelson, who was suffering from Multiple Myeloma, underwent such a transplant when he was in remission. The other type of donation is from others.
Stem cell transplants are not generally performed on patients who are over sixty years old. It is interesting to note that the donor and recipient need not necessarily be in the same place. The precious cargo is transported even to a recipient in a different country in special equipment which keeps the stem cells at the required temperature.
Donating blood is relatively commonplace. But various factors have to be taken into consideration when it comes to donating bone marrow stem cells.
Only around 30% of patients are able to get a matching donor from within the family. The preference is for using the stem cells of a sibling. Most patients depend on unrelated donors. Both the donor and the recipient should have a matching set of genetic markers, known as Human Leukocyte Antigens (HLA), on their white blood cells. The chances of finding a donor are much better within the same ethnic group.
The Marrow Donor Registry (India) or MDRI in short, is the brainchild of the eminent haematologist, Dr Sunil Parekh. His father’s words urging him to devote his life by saving the lives of others was an impetus to this 78-year-old indefatigable doctor to work seven days a week. Dr Parekh is the current President of the MDRI and is assisted by a band of doctors who work pro-bono for this worthy cause. The MDRI’s aim is to give a new lease of life to the 70% patients whose lives are in jeopardy because they cannot get a matching donor within their families. The MDRI operates from the Department of Transfusion, Tata Memorial Hospital (Tel: 65152695; Mob: 9223586076; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org).