A bone marrow transplant is a life-saving treatment for people with leukemia, lymphoma and many other types of diseases and blood disorders. Prior to receiving a transplant, patients are treated with chemotherapy and sometimes radiation to completely destroy their diseased marrow. The donor’s healthy blood-forming cells are then given directly into the patient’s bloodstream, where they can begin to function and then multiply. For a patient’s body to accept these healthy cells, the patient needs a donor who is a close match. Seventy percent of patients do not have a donor in their family and depend on the National Bone Marrow Registry to find an unrelated bone marrow donor.
Project Life is a national movement to make life-giving bone marrow transplants available to more patients by testing and registering college students to increase the potential pool of volunteer bone marrow and tissue donors. Our focus is on recruiting young, healthy college students because they provide the most successful matches. Project Life began at Davidson College in North Carolina and is expanding to college campuses across the country.
The more volunteer donors we can recruit, the better the chances that someone in need of a bone marrow donation will find a successful match. Currently, six of every 10 people who need this life-giving treatment are unable to find a suitable match. Every five minutes someone is diagnosed with a blood cancer, and each day there are thousands of patients with leukemia, lymphoma, sickle cell anemia and other life-threatening diseases who are searching for a bone marrow donor.
Potential donors must be between the ages of 18 and 44 and must be in good health. They must weigh at least 110 pounds and not be HIV positive. Other factors that make a potential donor ineligible include severe heart disease; a history of cancer; autoimmune diseases such as lupus or multiple sclerosis; severe asthma; hepatitis; severe back problems; epilepsy; or diabetes requiring insulin.
Your decision to join the Project Life movement commits you to being listed on the national registry until your 61st birthday, unless you ask to be removed. You would also be committed to consider donating to any searching patient who matches you, and to respond quickly if you are contacted as a potential match for a patient. You always have the right to change your mind about being a donor at any time.
It’s a remarkably simple process that involves using common swabs to collect tissue cells from the inside of the donor’s cheeks. Two swabs, one for each side of the mouth, are rubbed against the cheek for 10 seconds. The swabbing and completion of registration information takes less than 10 minutes.
After you are tested and typed, you will be added to the National Bone Marrow Registry, which is searched by doctors around the world daily to find donors who are a genetic match with their patient. If a doctor selects you as a match for a patient, you may be asked to donate bone marrow or cells from circulating blood.
The swabs used in testing collect tissue cells that contain proteins – also called markers – that are found on most cells in your body. Doctors look for donors whose tissue type matches their patient as closely as possible – the closer the match, the better for their patient.
Adult donors may be asked to donate in one of two ways. Liquid marrow may be withdrawn from the back of the donor’s pelvic bones using special, hollow needles. Another donation technique involves removing a donor’s blood through a sterile needle in one arm. The blood is passed through a machine that separates out the cells used in transplants, and the remaining blood is returned through the other arm.
Marrow donation is done under general or regional anesthesia so the donor experiences no pain during the collection procedure. Common side effects may include lower back pain, stiffness when walking, headaches and fatigue, but these are temporary and for most donors discomfort is gone within a few days.
One in every 430 members of the national bone marrow registry in the United States will go on to donate marrow. You may never be called upon to donate, or you may be one of potential matches. And it’s also possible that you may be the only donor on the registry that can save a particular patient’s life.
Individuals under the age of 18 are not able to give the informed consent legally required to undergo a bone marrow donation procedure, and their parents cannot do so for them. The upper age limit of 44 is for the donor’s safety but also reflects the fact that donated cells from younger donors result in the best outcomes for patients.