Gift of Life Marrow Registry gives hope for patients

MORGANTOWN — Every three minutes someone is diagnosed with a blood cancer in the United States, according to Gift of Life, a nonprofit that aims to sign people up for the bone marrow registry.

The organization said blood cancer is a generic term for cancers that affect the blood, bone marrow or lymphatic system in about 130,000 people a year.

Dr. Abraham Kanate, medical director of WVU Medicine’s Osborn Hematopoietic Malignancy & Cellular Therapy Program, said common diseases that can require a bone marrow transplant are multiple myeloma, lymphoma, acute leukemia, myelodysplastic syndrome, myelofibrosis, lymphoma and aplastic anemia.

The latter is why Mikalaa Martin, 20, became a campus ambassador for Gift of Life. She said her mother received a bone marrow transplant for severe aplastic anemia in December 2017, after multiple other treatments failed to help.

Martin said the transplant allowed her mother to go on walks again and do chores around the house she wasn’t able to do while on immunosuppressant treatment.

The junior forensic and investigative sciences major said she’s been a donor for 2 1/2 years and she tries to register people whenever she can.

Dalton Minger, a junior math and computer science major, was registered by Martin during a recent donor drive at the Mountainlair. Martin said she registered 71 other people in a four-hour window and registered 139 people this semester.

Minger said the process was easy — he just filled out a form with some basic information and used four cotton swabs to swab the four quadrants of his mouth.

Only 1 percent of people who sign up for the registry are matched with someone and even then it isn’t guaranteed they’ll become a donor. Martin said additional testing is required and 75 percent of the time only blood is needed.

The Gift of Life covers all expenses, including travel, if you’re ever asked to donate, Minger said.

Bone marrow is a soft substance in the cavities of bones where blood stem cells live, Kanate said. Over the span of a life the marrow produces and makes blood cells.

During such transplants, donor stem cells are injected into a patient and the stem cells use a homing mechanism to help them move to the marrow space, establish themselves and start producing blood cells, Kanate said.

There are two types of transplants, Kanate explained. An autologous transplant collects and stores stem cells from a patient, which are later put back into the same patient. Kanate said that allows very high doses of chemotherapy or radiation to kill the cancer.

In an allogeneic transplant a patient receives stem cells from a donor, which replaces the patient’s immune system, Kanate said. In some cancers, such as leukemia, the new immune system fights the cancer.

The stem cells from bone marrow can be collected in two ways.

The most common method is through the use of medication to push the stem cells out of the bone marrow and into the blood circulation, Kanate said. The cells are then collected from the veins by an Apheresis machine, he said.

The donor usually receives a medicine called filgrastim, which according to the Mayo Clinic, helps bone marrow make new white blood cells. Kanate said the drug causes some bone discomfort but is otherwise well tolerated. The collection process is not painful and there are no long-term side effects, he said.

The second way to collect bone marrow stem cells is through a bone marrow harvest. A needle is put into the hip bone of the donor and cells are collected directly, Kanate said.

The method is only used for specific cases such as aplastic anemia, half-matched donors or unrelated donors, he said. This method requires an operation room and general anesthesia, so the donor doesn’t feel anything, Kanate said.

The donor usually experiences hip pain for about a week, he said.

Both Martin and Kanate said everyone is encouraged to register as a donor. Martin said ethnic background plays a huge role in finding a matching donor.

Anyone interested in joining the registry or hosting an event and wants to have a registry sign-up drive can contact Martin at mmm0006@mix.wvu.edu.

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