Every 20 minutes, someone in the UK is diagnosed with a blood cancer, and for many of them, a blood stem cell transplant is their only chance of survival. A simple blood stem cell donation could save lives, but how can you do it?
Why do we need blood stem cell donations?
Blood stem cells – dubbed ‘the building blocks of life’ – are very early blood cells in the bone marrow that develop into red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.
Blood cancers often need very high doses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which kills both cancer cells and stem cells. This means that a blood stem cell transplant is urgently needed to replace them.
Around 2,000 people in the UK are in need of a blood stem cell transplant at any one time. Yet new research has found nearly two-thirds of Brits wouldn’t donate their stem cells, even if a loved one needed a transplant.
Research from UK charity Anthony Nolan found that fears of stem cell and bone marrow transplants being painful has put 4 in 10 people off donating. Almost a third of young adults wrongly believe stem cell donation involves painful extraction of bone marrow without anaesthesia.
Yet the reality is that most (90%) transplants use stem cells harvested from peripheral blood stem cell collection, which is simply taken from the bloodstream. Just 10% of Brits know this.
Of those who’ve previously donated stem cells, three quarters report the process was less painful than they imagined – or not painful at all.
Here, Lisa Nugent from the blood cancer charity DKMS outlines what everyone should know about blood stem cell donation.
What you should know about blood stem cell donation
1. You may be a stranger’s only chance of survival
Only 1 in 3 people with a blood cancer and in need of a transplant will find a matching blood stem cell donor within their own family. That means 2 in 3 need to look elsewhere.
Rebecca Pritchard is the head of register development at the Anthony Nolan stem cell register. She says: “There are lots of misconceptions that stop or delay people from registering to save a life. That’s something we’re tackling head on. We’re typically only able to find the best possible match for 69% of patients who need a transplant, so we need more people, especially young men, to join, so we can find the best match for everyone.”
2. It’s quick and easy to register as a donor
You can register as a potential lifesaver online at stem cell registers such as DKMS, NHS British Bone Marrow Registry or Anthony Nolan. You only need to join one register as medics look for a match across all registers. Whichever one you join, you can stay on it until you turn 60.
The register will send you a home kit containing swabs to rub on the inside of your cheeks. The swabs are then sent to a laboratory to determine your tissue type, and your details will be placed onto the register of potential donors.
“DKMS desperately needs more people to sign up. While both men and women are needed to be donors, men under 30 are significantly underrepresented on the register,” explains Nugent.
“It only takes a few moments. When you return your swab kit, you’ll go on standby to help save someone’s life.”
3. Blood stem cell donation is similar to blood donation
Around 90% of all donations are made through peripheral blood stem cell collection (PBSC), which is a similar process to giving blood.
Blood is taken from the donor’s arm and a machine extracts the blood stem cells from it. The donor’s blood is then returned to them through their other arm. This is an outpatient procedure that’s usually completed in 4 to 6 hours.
4. Bone marrow extraction is rare
In just 10% of cases, donations are made through bone marrow collection. Not only is it unlikely, the process is a lot simpler and less painful than people expect.
Bone marrow isn’t extracted from the spine, as many people think, but from the pelvic bone using a special thin, sterile needle. This is done under general anaesthetic.
5. You can sign up if you’re healthy and the right age
You need to be in general good health to sign up to any of the blood stem cell registers. You must be aged 18-55 for DKMS, between 16-30 for the Anthony Nolan register, and between 17-40 for the British Bone Marrow Registry.
Donors shouldn’t be too overweight or underweight, or have certain medical conditions, including cancer and autoimmune diseases.
Nugent says: “For a few minutes of your day, you could save someone’s life in the future. If you’re between 17 and 55 and in general good health, there’s no excuse not to. This is an altruistic action like no other.”
6. You don’t lose anything by donating
Within 2 to 4 weeks of donation, the body completely regenerates its missing stem cells. Any financial loss from travel for medical appointments may be reimbursed by the register too.
7. You can register when pregnant
DKMS says that although women can register as blood stem cell donors when pregnant, they can’t donate during the pregnancy. Pregnant women will be temporarily blocked on the registry until at least six months after giving birth. After that time, they’ll be reactivated and can be matched with anyone until their 61st birthday.
8. Stem cells have a short lifespan
Blood stem cells will never be stored. They last for around 72 hours and are delivered straight to the person in need by courier.
9. It’s unlikely you’ll be matched
It’s rare to find matching donors, so you may never be called upon at all. There’s only a 4-5% chance of being someone’s match in the next 10 years.
“You may never be asked to donate,” Nugent stresses. “But by being on the registry, you’re giving people with blood cancer hope.”
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