Before delving into the methodology on how one donates stem cells, let’s discuss why it’s important to do. Volunteers tend to donate stem cells either because of their loved ones or because the altruistic act is just that meaningful to them. Others donate their stem cells in order to use it for future autologous treatments, if necessary. The personal incentives for stem cell donation generally involve purely selfless reasons, like helping someone cure or improve a stressful condition, increasing the donor pool and directly increasing a patient’s chance of finding a suitable donor, or because they just want to save a life.
After all, during treatment, cancer patients receive high doses of chemotherapy or radiation so they begin losing their blood-making cells. For them, the danger of radiation damage is high enough that the appropriate steps taken have to involve healthy blood stem cells being implanted into their bodies. This allows the patient to regrow new blood cells while recovering from their treatment. It is a particularly crucial treatment for leukemia patients with cancerous blood stem cells, thus, preventing the normal maturity of their blood cells.
Myths About Stem Cell Therapy
Unfortunately, there are some misleading reports pertaining to the use of any kind of stem cell – and not just about where the stem cells come from. As a result, there are several myths that need to be debugged. To start off, stem cell donations do not always come from the bone marrow. As concerning as ‘bone marrow transplant’ might sound, more often than not, the situation is that the stem cells for an individual are removed from their own bloodstream. It comprises a very simple and minimally invasive procedure of removing the peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC) through a machine. Actual bone marrow donation is a surgical operation where the individual is given anesthesia – so the patient cannot feel anything – as the bone marrow is removed from their pelvis. It is an entirely painless process, although the patient may feel some degree of soreness, for a few days, after the operation.
What’s The Problem?
The main contention around stem cells is that its use is considered to be unethical. If there were an argument to make, then it would be directed toward embryonic stem cells rather than adult stem cells, and, very rarely, would the embryonic stem cells be obtained through unethical measures. There are other ways to treat an injury in stem cell therapy, such as platelet-rich-plasma injection, or PRP, which begins by taking regenerative platelets from the patient’s own blood until it has accumulated enough. Afterward, once the platelets are aggregated together, they are injected into the injured area, reforming essential specialized cells. Embryonic stem cells are commonly regulated in a way in which the embryos are only donated from IVF clinics, due to being rejected for various reasons.
Family Members Aren’t Always A Match
One might also ask, ‘well why should I be the one to donate? Why not their family members?’ Well, regarding the availability of donors for prospective patients, although some may think that cancer patients can rely on siblings or family members, it is never guaranteed that the sibling or anyone else with genetic similarity is an ideal match for stem cell donation. This is extremely relevant for minority groups or underrepresented groups, because of their distinct HLA types.
What You May Not Know About HLAs
HLA, or human leukocyte antigens, act as markers for your immune system, differentiating your cells from foreign cells. It is the exact same predicament for blood transfusion; one couldn’t possibly accept blood from the wrong blood type. HLA does the same thing, matching patients with specific donors for blood stem cell or bone marrow transplants. As a result, it is imperative that the match is as close as possible; although markers can be inherited, there isn’t a 100% matching. Even more so, it is far more likely you’ll match with someone with the same ethnic background. This is why it is important to have donors from diverse backgrounds. One way that donors are found is through the National Marrow Donor Program, a group that built a registry to match unrelated donors with patients.
Why Close Matching Is Important
In addition to the points made above, here are few other reasons to consider as to why close matching is important:
- It immensely improves the chances for a patient to have a successful transplant.
- It allows the donor’s cells to grow and remake blood cells in the body. Again, this is critical for victims of blood-related malignancies.
- It reduces the chance of the body rejecting the foreign blood cells and vice versa – where the immune cells from the donated cells attack the host’s cells. This can be very deadly for those with already weakened immune systems.
- Transplant centers have individual requirements. For example, the Be The Match transplant center only accepts a patient and donor transplant when it matches at least 6 of 8 HLA markers. Usually, this is found in the patient’s parent or child.
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What You Should Know About PBSC Donation
PBSC donation, which is the collection of blood from your bloodstream, is completely non-surgical. During the week leading up to your donation, a nurse or doctor will provide injections of filgrastim. Filgrastim is a type of growth-factor medication that increases the blood stem cells in your bloodstream by stimulating the bone marrow’s production of blood. This allows the nurse/doctor to harvest a significantly larger amount of blood stem cells than usual. If you feel like you don’t have enough time to visit your doctor for shots of filgrastim, then you can request to do the injections at home until you visit your donation center.
After that, on the day of the donation, blood will be removed through a needle on one arm, thus filtering out the blood stem cells and recycling them back into the other arm. This process may take an hour or two but donors are encouraged to read or watch movies during the donation process. It isn’t common, but sometimes a donor may need to return for a second extraction, depending on how many cells were retrieved from the first session.
For bone marrow donation, the individual will spend time in a hospital until the operation is necessary. After that, under general anesthetic, the doctors will use a needle to withdraw liquid marrow from the back of the person’s pelvic bone. They will feel no pain during the process but there may be some hip bruising, soreness, and fatigue after the surgery.
In Conclusion: Recovery
As always, donor safety is extremely important. It should take about a week to recover from the donation, depending on which one the participant was enrolled in. Becoming a donor is a serious commitment and you truly are acting as someone else’s cure. After the donation, give yourself a high-five for saving a life and remember to treat yourself for a job well done!
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