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The Bone Marrow Bank Needs You

Author: Tim Boyle, Issue: May 1996, Topic: Donations, Medical

There are a number of blood related illnesses that particularly attack children which at present can only be cured with a bone marrow transplant. This procedure involves a fairly risky procedure of first killing the patients diseased bone marrow cells through radiation therapy and then transferring healthy cells from a donor to grow back in their place in the bone marrow.

Among the main difficulties with this procedure, however, is finding a donor that closely matches the sick individual's cell characteristics. As with blood type, the HLA characteristics of the white blood cells (which are produced by the bone marrow) must also match in order for a transplant to work. As there are many thousands of different variant combinations of these characteristics, the chance of any particular individual being a match ranges from one in several hundred all the way down to one in several ten's of thousands for the rarer varieties. The probability of a sibling or other close relative being a match is, of course, much higher, (1 in 4 for a sibling) but many patients still cannot find a good match among their immediate family or relatives.

Thus, the Bone Marrow Bank was founded to register the white blood cell characteristics of thousands of potential donors to greatly improve the probability of a patient in need finding a donor match. While the actual bone marrow transplant operation itself requires a minor operation on the donor himself or herself, signing up as a potential donor involves only the giving of a blood sample for analysis. There are five locations in Ibaraki where that can be done, the nearest of which is Tsuchiura (the others being Shimodate, Itako, Mito and Hitachi). Samples can be taken at the main office in Mito anytime during normal working hours, but times are limited at the other sites. The Tsuchiura Hokenjo (Health Department), for instance, can only be accessed for this purpose on Thursday mornings from 9 to 11 am.

In order to maximize the efficiency of the bank and protect the health of both potential donors and recipients, there are a variety of restrictions. In order to become a donor, you must be a healthy individual between 20 and 50 years old (you're automatically removed when you turn 51), you must have a thorough understanding of what is involved, and your family must also agree to your being registered at the bank. In addition to the obvious conditions that would disqualify a person (such as AIDS, cancer, etc.) those with high or low blood pressure (over 150 or below 90) and those who are significantly outside normal body weight ranges likewise cannot be considered.

The process for registration first involves sending in a post card indicating your desire to be considered. You will then be contacted and an appointment set to take a blood sample and do the actual registration. Your data will then be entered into the nationwide bank and compared with those needing a bone marrow transplant. If there is a match, you will be contacted about coming in for a more thorough blood test to confirm complete compatibility. If everything still appears to be go, you will meet with a coordinator to go over various details, answer your questions, etc., and then you'll be scheduled for a third check, this time doing a DNA typing check to determine how close the you and the patient are on that level.

Assuming everything is still okay, you would at this point sign the necessary legal papers and be scheduled for the donor operation at the same time the patient is being prepared to accept the new cells. The operation you as a donor would undergo would involve a general anesthesia during the operation (when bone marrow would be removed from your hip bone), and a 3 to 4 day hospital stay to recuperate. While that would involve some discomfort and sacrifice on your part, if your experience is like most, the joy and satisfaction you would experience from saving someone's life would be well worth it.

If you are interested in pursuing this further, the Bone Marrow Bank has a toll free number 0120-377-465 (regular number 03-3355-5041 and fax 03-3355-5090). Foreign residents are, of course, encouraged to participate, though short-term people are obviously not appropriate due to the length of time involved in the process.

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