Blood cancer and stem cells: finding a match

September marks Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Here we take a look at how blood stem cells (HSCs) are now widely used in regenerative medicine to treat blood cancer, and how we can increase the odds of finding a match.

According to the charity DKMS, blood cancer is the fifth most common type of cancer in the UK, with someone being diagnosed every 20 minutes. The most effective way to treat it is with an infusion of blood stem cells, which have the ability to regenerate healthy blood cells to replace the diseased ones.

The patient is given this infusion of blood stem cells through a drip in the arm, where they move through the bloodstream into the bone marrow. From there, the stem cells produce new red and white blood cells and platelets to fight the disease.

The success of this treatment (ranging from 40%-80%) relies on many factors including the age and health of the patient, donation timing and potential complications. But finding a close stem cell DNA match is essential. Despite this, around two thirds of blood cancer patients wait on the public stem cell registry to find it. Only 69% of patients find the best match from a public bank, and this drops to 20% if the patient is black, Asian or another ethnic minority.

This was fortunately not the case for Gary from Lymington, Hampshire. He was the recipient of a successful stem cell donation from a stranger. On a waiting list of 2,000 people, he was given a perfect match from 58-year-old mum-of-three Karen.

"The stem cells populated and started producing bone marrow within a couple weeks", Gary said.

"I can't describe how it feels when the doctors say they have detected white blood cells, it was quite an exciting, quite a moving moment."

They have remained friends since, having met in person and exchanged many letters and calls.

"We just share normal updates, we are good friends. She was thrilled to hear about my son Philip getting engaged….Manchester to Lymington is miles away, so it is difficult to get together, but she really does feel like my sister."

While cases like Gary’s will increase as more people join the stem cell registry, the best way to guarantee a 100% matched and a readily available stem cell sample is to bank your own. Take a look at how shared genes affect your family's compatibility here:

Reference: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-48543424