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Bone marrow drives seek to delete blood cancer, raise awareness

Throughout the two days of hosting the drive, ONU's SSHP and Kappa Psi were able to register 141 people as potential donors. (photo/Katie Pritchard)

Every three minutes someone is diagnosed with a type of blood cancer in the U.S. For many patients, a bone marrow transplant is the best chance for survival. Yet, only 30 percent of patients find a matching donor from within their family. The rest must rely on the kindness of strangers.

It’s one thing to hear facts about people you’ll never meet. It’s another thing entirely when it hits someone you know.

For students in the Ohio Northern Student Society of Health-System Pharmacists (SSHP), that moment happened three years ago, when they found out that one of their brothers was diagnosed with HLH, a rare immune deficiency. He needed a bone marrow transplant, and that’s when they decided to hold their first bone marrow drive on campus.

He is still searching for a match; 60 percent of patients never find one.

Kate Pritchard, ONU’s SSHP fundraising chair, said they hope to hold a bone marrow drive every few years to better the chances of finding a match for those in need. This year Kappa Psi co-hosted the drives with ONU's SSHP in order to increase education and awareness about blood cancer and the need for eligible people to register as potential donors.

A bone marrow or blood stem cell transplant is a potentially life-saving treatment for patients fighting blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, as well as other blood diseases like sickle cell. A transplant replaces the patient’s unhealthy blood stem cells with healthy ones from a donor.

“Patients rely on benevolent strangers like the students at ONU to step up and register as donors,” Pritchard said. “By registering as a donor, you can increase these chances of a patient finding a compatible match and saving their life.”

This year the two-day drive, which took place on Feb. 15 and 16, registered 141 potential donors with the help of 24 volunteers. Each year, nearly 150,000 new donors are registered across the United States.

The process itself is simple: donors register and have the inside of their cheek swabbed. The procedure takes less than 15 minutes.

The collected sample is then packaged up and sent to a lab to analyze your tissue type, which is determined by examining HLA markers. A close HLA match increases the chance that the patient’s body will accept donated cells as its own, and thus not attack them. Currently, only about four in 10 patients can find a donor with a very close HLA type. The closest HLA matches generally occur between patients and donors who share the same ancestry.

In addition to registering donors, Kappa Psi and ONU’s SSHP held a Dine to Donate event through El Campo to raise money to cover the cost of testing kits, which are $65 each. One hundred percent of money raised from the fundraiser went to Delete Blood Cancer (DKMS) to provide free testing kits to those wishing to register.

In the case of a donor being matched to someone in need, DKMS also covers the cost of all expenses during the donation process. DKMS relies on donations to keep their mission of providing these services at no cost in order to encourage as many people as possible to register as donors.

Kat Liu, one of the event organizers, believed that keeping the process simple really helped encourage students to participate.

“I think people become excited when they learn how they can impact others, especially when the opportunity is right in front of them and only takes a short amount of time.”

Pritchard emphasized another great benefit of this whole process was to educate people about blood cancer and correct the many common misconceptions people have about what it means to be a bone marrow donor.

Previously the most common way to donate bone marrow was through direct extraction by surgery. Today, this method is only used for 25 percent of cases, often when a child is in need of a transplant.  

In the other 75 percent of cases, bone marrow is collected through a non-surgical method known as “peripheral blood stem cell donation,” where cells are collected out of the bloodstream. In both cases, the small fraction of stem cells you donate will replenish themselves in a few weeks. Your immune system is not compromised by the donation.

When there's a match, the patient undergoes high dosages of chemotherapy and possibly radiation therapy to destroy all the diseased cells in their body and immune system in preparation for the transplant. This process is done so that the diseased cells can’t attack the donated cells afterward. During transplant, donated cells are infused into the patient and move through the bloodstream into the bone marrow, where they begin to grow and produce new healthy blood cells in a process called engraftment.

To volunteer as a potential donor, you can visit getswabbed.org and sign up. If you don't feel comfortable registering or aren't eligible, you can also make monetary donations to fund DKMS’ work to delete blood cancer.

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