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Bone Marrow: Marrow For Tomorrow

A transplant of your bone marrow may give a leukaemia patient a new lease of life. Five years ago, regional infrastructure consultant Andy, 32, signed up as a bone marrow donor during one of his regular blood donation sessions.

Bone marrow, which is found in the long bones and is easily accessible in the pelvic area, is where the body produces red and white blood cells as well as platelets. A transplant can help sufferers of diseases of the blood or certain cancers to repopulate their bone marrow with healthy donor stem cells, so that new blood cells can be produced.

Andy's tissue type was found to be a perfect match for an 11-year-old boy suffering from leukaemia, an ailment that can be fatal if left untreated. A transplant was done and the boy could continue leading a normal life. While some types of leukaemia can be treated by chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant is often the treatment of choice for patients with more severe problems like lymphoma or acute leukaemia. The problem lies in finding a suitable donor.

Dr Mickey, consultant transplant haematologist, says siblings tend to have a higher chance of getting a full tissue match, compared to an unrelated donor. The chances of two people from the same ethnic group having a perfect match are one in 20,000. In February this year, singer Jennifer Lopez appealed to the United States' Hispanic population to become bone marrow donors to save Janet Ovalles, a young Hispanic woman dying of blood cancer.

When you sign up as a potential donor, a small blood sample is taken via a finger prick to determine your tissue type. The results are stored in the Bone Marrow database. You will be contacted if you area match for a patient. Because a transplant requires perfect matching to minimise complications, many do not end up donating their bone marrow. Andy counts himself lucky to be able to save someone's life. He says: "Until you see a leukaemia patient, you can't imagine how much he is suffering. I was glad that I could help someone."

Who Needs A Bone Marrow Transplant?

They are children and adults suffering from haematological cancers and leukaemias, namely aggressive acute leukaemias, lymphomas and chronic myeloid leukaemia. In some cases, those suffering from cancers involving solid tumours, like nasopharyngeal carcinomas may be eligible for transplants.

How Is Bone Marrow Harvested?

The traditional method involves inserting a needle into the pelvic bone of a donor and extracting the bone marrow found there. This is done under general anaesthesia. The second and newer technique, known as peripheral stem cell harvest, involves injecting hormones into the donor's body to stimulate the production of bone marrow that "overflow" into the blood. The donor is connected to a machine, where the stem cells are colleced from the blood stream. How Much Bone Marrow Is Extracted During A Harvest?

The amount depends on the size of the person. In the traditional method about 700m1 is harvested. For the peripheral method, a 100 to 150m1 is collected due to the higher concentration of stem cells.

Who Qualifies For Bone Marrow Donation?

Anyone fit enough to undergo general anaesthesia should be able to do so. If you are between 18 and 60 and free from any transmissible disease, you can be a donor.

How Much Does It Cost To Donate Bone Marrow?

The patient will pay for all medic expenses. The cost of a full bone marrow transplant treatment (not subsidised) in the public hospitals ranges between $80,000 and $100,000.

How Often Can I Donate My Bone Marrow?

Bone marrow is replenished quickly just like blood cells are replenished after a blood donation. Many who sign up cannot donate their marrow because of difficulty finding a perfect match. Hence, those who do actually get to donate do it only once in their life-time.

Would I Feel Any Pain?

There is generally no pain as the donor is under general anaesthesia. Some experience stiffness or slight discomfort in the lower back but that will go away in a few days.

Would Harvesting Bone Marrow Affect My Health?

It is considered a very safe procedure. In the 30 years that the traditional procedure has been done, there has been no evidence of known long-term side effects on donors. Similarly, there are no known side effects in the past 10 years since the introduction of the new method.


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