OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network: Making it Easier than Ever to Save a Life

Hundreds of Canadians need stem cell transplants every year, but the reality is that over 70 percent of patients in need will not find a suitable donor match amongst family members. Canadian patients must then look to OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network (OneMatch), an arm of Canadian Blood Services that is charged with finding and matching donors to patients in need of stem cell transplants. OneMatch is part of an international network of registries, so even if a match can’t be found domestically, OneMatch can look to other international databases to find a match and possibly save a life.

Stem cells are essentially immature blood cells that will later develop into red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets and other blood components. Transplanting healthy stem cells from a donor helps patients with diseases that inhibit the production of these cells, including cancers, leukemia, myeloma, lymphoma, thalassemia, sickle cell and aplastic anemia, among other. The appeal of stem cell donation is as simple as OneMatch’s slogan: “You can be the match that saves a life.”

Even with international accessibility the network remains in great need of registered donors across all ethnic groups, an issue which was brought to light recently with the story of Amit Gupta.

Looking Abroad

Gupta is a 32-year-old Internet entrepreneur, founder of a digital photography newsletter and website Photojojo, and he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Gupta is of Indian descent and was told by his doctors in California that a stem cell transplant would optimally need to be arranged by the end of 2011.

Stem cell donor matches are most often found amongst similar ethnic communities, but South Asians as a whole only account for one percent of the registered donors in the U.S. National Marrow Donor program; India currently does not have a national registry of its own, so finding a match there isn’t an option. Over the course of a few weeks Gupta’s search for a donor match sparked an online social media movement, Amit Gupta Needs You, which has since launched numerous donor drives in Canada and the U.S., as well as a $30,000 reward for finding Gupta a match.

However, South Asians aren’t the only underrepresented ethnic group in stem cell and marrow donor registries. Canadians of all ethnic backgrounds are equally likely to have a difficult time finding a suitable match, especially because certain diseases are more prevalent amongst some ethnic groups. OneMatch subsequently launched a call for action in mid-2011, followed by a call for aboriginal and First Nations peoples in September 2011, to join the registry with the help of the Aboriginal Nurses Association of Canada. At that time OneMatch had over 300,000 registered donors and 14 aboriginal patients still desperate to find a match.

Myths and Misconceptions

Registering with a donor network like OneMatch can literally save lives, but one of the most pervasive impediments to donor registry is the misconception that it is a painful process. The reality is that registration has never been easier or painless and an important distinction needs to be made between registering as a possible donor and actually donating stem cells to a patient in need.

Registration can be accomplished through OneMatch’s website, where interested parties are asked to answer 10 short questions to verify that the donor understands both the risks and benefits of stem cell donation. Potential donors then complete a short questionnaire to validate the donor’s good health. In only a matter of weeks OneMatch mails the donor a home test kit. Donors use the home test kit to complete four buccal swabs – also known as cheek swabs – from the upper, lower, right and left quadrants of the donor’s mouth, which requires only a little more pressure than brushing one’s teeth to obtain a viable sample.

The registered donor simply places the labeled swabs back in the kit and mails it to OneMatch in a prepaid and preaddressed envelope for testing. The swabs are then tested to identify up to 12 major human leukocyte antigens (HLA), which are important genetic markers in matching patients with potential matches.

The more HLA similarities, the closer the match, and the more registered donors the better OneMatch can find the best available match. The entire process is voluntary and each OneMatch donor reserves the right to opt out of the database at any time and for any reason, even once a match is found.

More Options than Ever

Once a match is found and the donor consents to proceed with the donation, a case manager is assigned to the donor. A physician then conducts a physical examination to ensure the donor is well enough to proceed. Donors are briefed on all of the risks and benefits of each donation method. The donation procedure is scheduled only after the donor gives consent once again.

Stem cells can be transplanted in one of three ways, depending on the individual patient’s needs and availability. In some cases a transplant can be made using stem cells from cord blood banks, but the most well known and direct method involves a surgical procedure where the donor is placed under anesthesia, allowing doctors to extract a fluid sample from the rear side of the donor’s pelvis using a hollow needle. The procedure itself lasts between 45 and 90 minutes and doctors extract between 0.5 and 1.5 litres of fluid, including blood and bone marrow to be transplanted into the patient match.

Donors can also provide stem cells through a procedure known as apheresis. These donations are sometimes called peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donations, but apheresis is also used for other types of donations, including platelet and plasma donations. Donors receive injections of granulocyte stimulating factor for four to five days leading up to the donation to stimulate stem cell production. A medical professional then obtains a blood donation, extracts the stem cells and returns the blood to the donor in a separate injection.

Gupta announced on his blog in January 2011 that a perfect 10/10 match had been found, but his story also helped launch over 100 stem cell donor drives in addition to helping call attention to an important worldwide issue. OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network and other registry networks worldwide are working together to make registration easier than ever. The chance of finding a perfect match and saving the life of another has become that much easier with the help of today’s social media.