By: Alon Coret 

You may have recently heard about the urgent call for blood donations made by Canadian Blood Services (CBS). Well, just so you know, it’s not only blood donations per se that are required by CBS – they are also hoping to add potential matches to their bone marrow and stem cell network. This sub-group within CBS is appropriately known as “One Match,” and it seeks to establish a worldwide database – in partnership with over fifty other national networks – in hopes of increasing the number of potential matches for life-saving stem cell donations and bone marrow transplants.

Just as with blood donations, it is often not a lack of willingness to donate that stops people from signing up; rather, it’s the burden involved in actually making the time for it. And I get it – we are all busy university students. So, to save you the time…the signup has already been arranged for you!

On Oct. 28 (10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.), an event known as “Get Swabbed” will take place in the MUSC Marketplace. Volunteers from both McMaster and CBS will help sign up interested students, and provide further information about eligibility requirements and the overall process of donations. All that’s needed from you is: (1) informed consent to participate (yes, you will be provided with all necessary information), and (2) a quick, five-minute swab to collect cheek tissue samples. Your information would then be recorded in the One Match database. If a patient is found to be compatible with you, One Match will call you up to see whether you would be interested in making a donation (at which point, by the way, you are NOT obligated to proceed should you wish to withdraw consent).

Who is needed? Anyone and everyone could be a match, but 17-35-year-old males are especially needed.  Moreover, if you belong to an ethnic minority, there is a good chance One Match is underrepresented by your demographic (and possibly unique genetic markers). Therefore, you are extra encouraged to register in the database.

Why the need for such a large database? Stem cell transplants require a high genetic profile match between donor and recipient, specifically the compatibility of 12 genetic markers known as human leukocyte antigens, or HLA. As a result, one would expect high suitability among family members. Nonetheless, fewer than 30 percent of patients who need stem cell transplants find a compatible donor within their own family, and thus rely on donations from others.

Who needs stem cell transplants? A variety of diseases and disorders are treated with stem cell transplants, including blood-related diseases such as leukemia, aplastic anemia, and inherited immune system and metabolic disorders (e.g. Tay Sachs disease). These conditions are often fatal, and so early detection, successful treatments, and a compatible stem cell or bone marrow transplant are crucial to save the patient’s life.

What’s the actual “donation” procedure like? Stem cell transplant procedures tend to have the reputation of being painful, dangerous, or overly complicated. This is not quite so. Today there are two common methods in use, both involving very minimal risk to the donor.

The first is called “Stimulated peripheral blood stem cell donation,” a non-surgical procedure involving the collection of stem cells over a period of four to five days. Yes, it involves needles (but only a couple). And yes, there are some short-term side effects, including nausea, muscle pain, and redness at the site of injection.

Another method in use is a bone marrow stem cell donation, which is a surgical procedure performed under anesthetics. Special, hollow needles are used to withdraw liquid marrow (~ 1 liter) from the back of the donor’s pelvic bones. This procedure typically lasts about an hour. Although it sounds like a lot to give, both the blood and stem cells from the marrow are naturally replenished within six weeks.

The key take-home messages regarding these procedures are: (1) they are very safe for the donor; and (2) by virtue of being a match, you are by no means obligated to donate and can withdraw from One Match at any time. By registering, however, you put yourself in a sort of lottery where you have the chance to give somebody the best prize of all: their health, their smile, and their life.

I hope to see you there as part of this important initiative!

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