Bone Marrow Donation Needn’t Be A ‘Needle In A Haystack’ Search

Bone Marrow Donation Needn’t Be A ‘Needle In A Haystack’ Search

We’re all aware of the need to give blood. Every year the NHS runs high-profile advertising campaigns to encourage more people to give blood, and the various uses for the donations which are given. Despite the fact that we all know about giving blood, and most of us are in agreement with the life-saving work which international blood services do, only 4% of the UK adult population are regular blood donors and less than 10% of the adult US population donate blood annually. Disregarding the people who are banned from giving blood because of lifestyle choices, illness or previous transfusions, this is a very low rate of donation. However, when looking at stem cell and bone marrow donation, the situation is even worse.

Why is Stem Cell and Bone Marrow Donation So Important?

Bone marrow is the soft tissue which forms the centre of many of the bones of the body. Bone marrow’s function is to produce stem cells, often known as the building blocks of the human body because of their ability to grow into any other type of cells. As these stem cells are so important, any disease which affects the body’s ability to produce bone marrow can prove extremely serious, and in many cases, fatal. The most common conditions which stop bone marrow from producing their stem cells include leukaemia, and types of anaemia. For many of the patients suffering from these serious illnesses, often the only prospect of a cure is a stem cell transplant. In 30% of transplants, the donor is a close relative, but 70% of people requiring a transplant have to rely on the generosity of strangers for their lifesaving cure. 

Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth?

Currently, the situation in for registering bone marrow and stem cell donors is fragmented and there is a growing school of thought that this situation has to change to provide a more effective way of responding to the needs of critically ill patients. Currently, donors are recruited through either attending blood donation sessions and being asked whether they are prepared to sign up to the Bone Marrow Registry as well, or by responding to appeals by the Anthony Nolan Trust or Delete Blood Cancer in the UK. In the USA, the country with the most stem cell and bone marrow donors registered, the database is managed by the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) which was founded in the 1980s, and to date has carried out more than 68,000 transplants of bone marrow and stem cells from cord blood. The second biggest national register is in Germany, where the German National Registry (ZKRD) has 6 million potential donors on their books. All of these national organisations are doing important work, and working closely together to facilitate international transplants where most appropriate. This seems to be the way forward; encouraging national organisation like the National Marrow Donor Program, ZKRD and Anthony Nolan to work together, and encourage other countries to develop their own programmes to recruit donors which can then link up databases to provide worldwide coverage. 

Payment for Donors

Unlike donating a pint of blood which takes very little time and involves minimal pain, giving stem cells from bone marrow is a far more invasive procedure. There are two methods for collecting stem cells. The first involves daily trips to a nurse for injections in the four days leading up to the donation, then the donor is connected to a cell-separator machine which filters the stem cells from the blood. The second and more invasive method involves stem cells and bone marrow being taken from the bones in the hip under a general anaesthetic. UK law forbids the payment of donors who are prepared to put themselves through these procedures, and only limited reimbursement of expenses is allowed. In other countries such as the USA, potential donors are paid up for £75 for the initial blood test, and are entitled to hefty experiences if they are matched with a recipient. Although current statistics show that 90% of patients who need a non-relative to provide a donation are matched with a donor, only 1% of people who are signed up with a registry will ever be matched and asked to donate their marrow or stem cells. Around 10% will ever be asked to undergo tests to see if they are a match. Perhaps if people were aware that they were very unlikely to be matched, the might be more likely to join the register in the first place.

Funding to Raise Awareness

Back in March 2015, the UK government announced that they were to spend £3 million on a partnership with the Anthony Nolan Trust in order to raise awareness of stem cell donation, and sign up more young adults to the register. In the USA, the Be The Match scheme promoted by the NMDP has gone down the route of corporate backing, and are partnered with businesses, universities and churches to raise both awareness and funds, and the German ZKRD database works in very similar ways.

Social Media – The Way Forward?

New potential donors accepted onto the stem cell donation register have to be aged between 18 and 49. So is the answer to getting young, fit and healthy people onto the donation register to be active in social media promotion? Anthony Nolan certainly think so. The charity is active on Twitter, and supporters are encouraged to interact with the charity using hashtags and tagging their friends. Increasing brand awareness on a tight budget is a challenge faced by many charities, and Anthony Nolan are exploiting the free tools of Twitter and Facebook to their advantage. Cheaper than mailings, and with ability to be targeted at certain demographic groups, social media marketing is a must to drive the recruitment of bone marrow and stem cell donations. 

Have you discovered Lara Casalotti's story and her recent announcement that a match has been found for her? 



National Marrow Donor Program

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