Be the Match: Finding the Stem Cell Needle in the Haystack

Getting people to donate blood is relatively easy.  Blood drives are frequently held, and most people are aware of both the need and the accessibility of donation.  For stem cells, however, the story is not the same.  Although the need is great, far fewer people are aware that they can make the difference between life and death by registering as a donor.  Be The Match, an organization that finds donor matches for patients in need of a stem cell transplant, is dedicated to raising awareness, raising funds and, most importantly, raising donor registration numbers.

Some patients with certain cancers, such as some leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma, need a very high dosage of chemotherapy directed at blood-related cells.  The therapy damages bone marrow, and these patients require a stem cell transplant to restore their ability to create normal blood cells.  Although terminology can be confusing, both a "bone marrow transplant" and a "peripheral stem cell transplant"  put new, working stem cells into a patient's bone marrow.  The difference lies in the source of the donated cells.  In a bone marrow transplant, they are harvested from the donor's marrow.  In a peripheral stem cell transplant, the cells come from donor blood.

Patients must be carefully matched with donor stem cells to avoid rejection.  Compatibility for these cells is far more complex than for simple blood typing; the odds are extremely low that an individual, unrelated donor will be suitable.  To raise the odds, physicians first look at blood relatives, but this works in only 30% of the cases.  The remaining 70% of patients must be matched with unrelated donors, and this can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.  To be successful, you need a very large pool in which to search.

This is where Be The Match steps in.  Since 1986, this nonprofit has been gathering volunteer donors who are willing to provide stem cells to patients they do not know and may never meet.  To date, Be The Match has grown its registry to 11 million people.  When combined with the organization's network of partner registries, the total reaches over 22 million.  Since its inception, Be The Match has facilitated over 61,000 stem cell donations, and its yearly transplant rate is almost 6,300.  

Most patients now have a good chance of finding a donor through Be The Match.  Depending on ethnicity and race, the organization estimates that the odds are up to 76-97%.  However, certain groups remain underrepresented in the donor pool and still represent a special challenge.  Be The Match is working to raise awareness in these groups in order to increase the donor numbers in these populations.

Donors often feel that stem cell donation is one of their most rewarding experiences.  It isn't often that you get the opportunity to save a life.  Be The Match has been witness to tens of thousands of heartwarming, life-saving stories.  Take Bhairavi, who donated twice to help a little boy with acute myelogenous leukemia.  Michelle, a college student, donated to little one-year-old Ava who is now a healthy and happy four-year old.  Jonathon, another double-donor who gave his cells to a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma patient, sums it up in this way:  "I don't think they realize how good of a thing they are doing just yet. Once you get the call and you get to donate, you are a hero to at least one person - it's the best feeling - you're a hero."