Being a bone marrow donor might one day be your chance to save someone’s life
Joan Marie Pellegrini, MD
Feb. 17, 2009
Most of us have heard of someone’s family or friends holding a bone marrow drive.What we may not know is why they are doing this and what it entails of the potential donor. In order to be in the donor registry, we must first give a sample of our cells through a blood draw or a swipe of cheek cells to the donor program. Each of us has a “fingerprint” on our cells that is made up of many antigens. Antigens are molecules on the surface of our cells that identify cell type and who the person is. Antigens are the whole reason why we cannot transplant an organ from just any person into any other person or why we cannot use animal organs or blood. This antigen “fingerprint” on our cells is the result of some genes that came from our mother and some from our father. Therefore, people in one family have cellular fingerprints that look similar to each other. Identical twins have identical cellular fingerprints.
Scientists have categorized the antigens into different types. One group of antigens is called “HLA." This is why tissue typing (determining a cell’s fingerprint) might also be called HLA typing. There is only a few types of HLA but an almost infinite number of ways they can be combined. Since siblings get their HLA from the same parents, there is a 25 percent chance that they will have the same HLA pattern. HLA is also determined by ethnicity. A person has a better chance of finding a similar HLA pattern from someone of their same ethnic background than from someone of a different ethnicity.
The bone marrow registry has approximately eleven million registrants from around the world. However, there are fewer people from certain ethnic backgrounds and thus a greater need to have people of these ethnicities consider becoming a registrant. These backgrounds are black or African American, American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian, Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, Hispanic, mixed ethnic background.
Being a potential donor does not require too much. You must be between the ages of 18 and 60 and healthy. You must be willing to donate marrow if you are matched. There is a moderate fee of $50 but this is often covered by certain organizations. You must be willing to give a sample of blood (the most common) or swab of cheek cells (less common).
For more information on the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) go to www.marrow.org.