Stem cell transplants
Posted on 11 April 2019
Saving a life is easier than you think. Stem cell transplants can treat up to 70 different rare diseases. With a simple cheek swab, you could register to help save countless lives.
Registering as a stem cell donor takes less than 10 minutes. “In October 2018, we introduced a new system where all you need to do to register as a potential donor is provide a swab from the inside of your cheek,” says Alana James, CEO of The Sunflower Fund. To begin, download and read the donor information on the website, then call 0800 12 10 82. “If you are eligible to donate, our team will take you through a health-screening questionnaire. Once completed, they will send you a form and direct you to a partner lab to have your blood drawn.”
Why? What is the recovery time? And what does it cost?
Here are some answers to common questions:
AM I ELIGIBLE TO BE A DONOR?
▶ If you are between 18 and 45, have a constant weight of more than 50kg and a BMI of less than 40, you could be eligible to become a donor. Donors are male and female and from all ethnicities.
WHAT DOES TESTING INVOLVE?
▶ Once you are registered, Alana explains you will need to complete a health-screening questionnaire to determine your eligibility to register. “If you are eligible, two test tubes of blood will be drawn from your arm for the HLA tissue-typing (DNA) test. This information is stored on our registry and will be compared globally with patients the moment a search is activated. If you are a match for a patient, you will go through a full medical check in hospital. This is to ensure you are in good health, and to avoid any risk to you and the patient. Passing this medical means you are a suitable donor. This may only happen years after registering, so staying healthy is important.”
WHAT IS THE PROCEDURE FOR DONATION?
▶ “Donation is almost painless and takes four to six hours. It’s similar to donating blood. A needle is inserted into both arms. Blood is drawn from one arm, passed through a machine to separate the stem cells out of the blood, and the blood is then pumped back into the other arm. There is no operation, no incision and no anaesthetics involved – just a pin prick. You will receive growth hormone injections to stimulate the production of stem cells in your bone marrow. The excess stem cells move out of your bone marrow into your blood stream, which allows it to be harvested from your blood.”
WHAT IS THE RECOVERY TIME FOR THE DONOR?
▶ There is no recovery time required, and you will be able to continue with your normal day-to-day life almost immediately. No major health risks have been identified.
HOW OFTEN CAN I DONATE?
▶ You can only donate stem cells once in your life. Rarely a patient may need a top-up and you may be called on again. You are taken off the registry once you’ve been a donor.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE WELL KNOWN DISEASES TREATED?
▶ “According to the World Marrow Donor Association (WMDA), a stem cell transplant can be a cure for more than 70 different diseases,” says Alana. These include leukaemia, lymphoma, thalassemia, aplastic anaemia, sickle cell disease, severe combined immunodeficiency syndrome, myelodysplastic syndromes, congenital neutropenia and chronic granulomatous disease, to name just a few.
WHO NEEDS A STEM CELL DONATION?
▶ “A person who has a disease or condition that prevents the body from making enough healthy blood cells may require a stem cell transplant,” she says. “The transplant replaces a patient’s defective stem cells with healthy ones. It’s a medical procedure to replace the bone marrow that has been damaged or destroyed by disease, infection or chemotherapy.” More than 50 000 stem cell transplants happen worldwide every year.
HOW EASY IS IT TO FIND A MATCH?
▶ There’s a 25% chance that a sibling may be a match. Some patients search for less than a year, while others have been waiting for many years for a match. Matches are most likely within a patient’s ethnic group.
WHAT COSTS ARE INVOLVED?
▶ A tissue-typing test costs The Sunflower Fund R3 000. “There is no cost to the donor,” explains Alana, “but we appreciate voluntary donations towards these costs, and we also hold fundraising activities in order to cover costs.”
REGISTER TO SAVE A LIFE
South African Bone Marrow Registry (SABMR)
THE SUNFLOWER FUND
Call 0800 12 10 82 or go to sunflowerfund.org.za
WORDS KERI HARVEY