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Bone Marrow expert calls for more minority donors

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Rod Gunn doesn't know of a single African-American person who has survived afflictions such as aplastic anemia or leukemia, without receiving a bone marrow transplant.

Gunn, a recruitment specialist for the National Marrow Donor Program, also knows African-American, Hispanic-American, and Asian-American donors are in short supply across the United States. The people who are most likely to be matching bone marrow donors for someone who needs a transplant are brothers and sisters, and people who are from the same ethnic background, Gunn said.

There are 6 million people listed on the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry. Only 8 percent of those people are African Americans, while 15 percent are Hispanic Americans, and 12 percent are Asian Americans. The rest are Caucasians.

Essentially, there are not a lot of available to help is someone from a minority, ethnic group who gets sickle cell anemia, leukemia, aplastic anemia, lymphoma or multiple myeloma.

Gunn came to Clayton State University on Wednesday to speak with a small group of students during a forum on bone marrow transplants. The forum was hosted by the university's chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho sorority.

"These diseases, for minority patients, are like a death sentence," he said. "The chances of finding a matching donor are not good at all for them."

The Sigma Gamma Rho chapter will host a bone-marrow-donor recruitment fair on Thursday, Feb. 21, from 10 a.m., to 2 p.m., in Clayton State's Athletic and Fitness Building. Community members, particularly those who are members of minority ethnic groups, or are from mixed-ethnic backgrounds, are encouraged to attend. There is no cost for people who sign up to be a donor.

Anyone who comes by to sign up for the donor registry will have to fill out a form, which asks questions about the potential donor's health background. Four swabs will then be taken inside the person's mouth, and the swabs will later be used for tissue testing. The tissue testing will let the National Marrow Donor Program's organizers know if the potential donor is a match for someone in need of a bone marrow transplant.

"This is a very diverse school, so this is a message which needs to be gotten out to our students and the community we are a part of," said Angela Randall-Harden, the parliamentarian for the Sigma Gamma Rho chapter.

A person's bone marrow produces blood stem cells, Gunn said. These cells are what produces a person's red and white blood cells. A person can come down with diseases, such as aplastic, sickle cell anemia or leukemia, if the bone marrow stops producing these cells, or doesn't produce enough any more. A transplant of new marrow is then necessary.

The donor's bone marrow is given an injection of filgrastim, a horomone which causes the marrow to begin producing an extra amount of blood stem cells. The patient's original bone marrow is killed through chemotherapy.

Thirty percent of matching donors are relatives, with the best matches being brothers and sisters, Gunn said. The remaining 70 percent can be any stranger, but Gunn said it's rare to see a person be a match for someone of a different ethnicity. A person who comes from mixed ethnic backgrounds, such as a Caucasian and African-American background, can donate marrow to people who match any of their respective ethnicities.

Meanwhile, the donor's extra blood stem cells are removed from the major veins in each of the person's arms. The cells are then injected into the patient. The cells should then began to function, but will continue to produce the blood type of the donor, meaning a patient with O-negative blood could end up having O-positive blood, instead, after the transplant.

The new, healthy, blood cells contain antibiotics, which can fight off diseases, Gunn said. He also said a healthy body is continually regenerating these blood stem cells, so the donor is not suffering a permanent loss by donating some of his, or her, bone marrow.

"Some people don't want to do it because they think it will hurt too much," Gunn said. "I'm here to tell you, no matter how much it hurts to give bone marrow, it's nothing compared to the pain of losing a loved one."

To become a donor, a person has to be between the ages of 18 and 60, be in "reasonably good health," and willing to donate blood cells. Gunn said people can still be in "reasonably good health," if they have high blood pressure or have diabetes, unless the person is taking insulin shots to control the diabetes.

Another option available to expectant mothers is to let the National Marrow Donor Program have the umbilical cord after a child is born. Gunn said the cord is filled with "thousands" of blood stem cells, enough to treat "an adult and maybe two children."

Ashley Carlisle, a junior biology major from East Point, signed up for the registry in November 2007, during Sigma Gamma Rho's last bone-marrow donor drive. While she heard some students complaining about what they might have to go through if they sign up to be a donor, Carlisle couldn't understand the argument.

"I did it to help other people," Carlisle said. "So many people are scared to do it. I just ask, 'Why?' It's really no different from donating your blood."