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The Life-saving Gift of Bone Marrow

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

Since the late 1960s, tremendous strides have been made in the field of stem cell and bone marrow transplantation. Today, these procedures routinely help treat many people suffering from life-threatening diseases such as leukemia and lymphoma.

Keith Sullivan, M.D., from the division of medical oncology and stem cell transplantation at Duke University Medical Center, urges everyone to consider becoming a donor.

"The need for individuals to be blood donors is real, ongoing and constant," says Sullivan, who directs Duke's Center for Cancer Outcomes and Research. "If an individual also wanted to be considered to be a donor of either peripheral (circulating) blood stem cells or bone marrow cells, the first step is to contact the American Red Cross."

Sullivan explains that there are two ways to donate stem cells. "The first is from one's own bone marrow," he says. "This typically requires an hour or two in the operating room under anesthesia to have stem cells collected by a mini-surgical procedure in the area of the hip bone.

"The other option is to collect blood for stem cells, which is not the same as simply giving blood. Stem cells are quite rare in circulating blood, so what's needed is three or four days' worth of growth factors and shots to increase the percentage of stem cells. These stem cells are then collected on a pheresis machine, which collects the stem cells and gives the red and white platelets back."

Sullivan also notes one other important source of stem cells: "If a woman is pregnant and wishes to donate some of the blood in the umbilical cord at the time of birth, these cells have the advantage of being early, undifferentiated cells. Therefore they have less potential for reactivity and adverse complications."

Sullivan says there are now 5 million names worldwide on the marrow donor registry, but there will always be a pressing need for donors. "That is especially urgent for members of minorities -- African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans. You just need a larger proportion of minority donors to have another donor for another minority individual."

More than 16,000 bone marrow and stem cell transplants have been performed since the National Marrow Donor Program was established in 1986.

"For years, this type of treatment was only employed as a last-ditch effort, but technology, research and supportive care have helped chip away the impediments one by one," Sullivan says. "This is one of the real 'good news' stories in cancer research."

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