Bone Marrow Donation is the Gift of Life

More Latinos need to be tested and entered into the National Marrow Donor Program.

Unfortunately, more Latinos than any other minority will die of blood-borne diseases. Pure and simple, this is because not enough Latinos have joined the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP).

Just what is bone marrow, what does it do, and why is donation so important?

Bone marrow is a spongy tissue found inside bones. The bone marrow in the breast bone, skull, hips, ribs, and spine contains stem cells that produce the body’s blood cells. These blood cells include white blood cells (leukocytes), which fight infection; red blood cells (erythrocytes), which carry oxygen to and remove waste products from organs and tissues; and platelets, which enable the blood to clot.

In patients with leukemia, aplastic anemia, various types of lymphoma, and some immune deficiency diseases, the stem cells in the bone marrow malfunction, producing an excessive number of defective or immature blood cells (in the case of leukemia) or low blood cell counts (in the case of aplastic anemia). The immature or defective blood cells interfere with the production of normal blood cells, accumulate in the bloodstream, and may invade other tissues.

Large doses of chemotherapy and/or radiation are required to destroy the abnormal stem cells and abnormal blood cells. These therapies, however, not only kill the abnormal cells but can destroy normal cells found in the bone marrow as well. Similarly, aggressive chemotherapy used to treat some lymphomas and other cancers can destroy healthy bone marrow. A bone marrow transplant enables physicians to treat these diseases with aggressive chemotherapy and/or radiation by allowing replacement of the diseased or damaged bone marrow after the chemotherapy/radiation treatment.

While bone marrow transplants do not provide 100 percent assurance that the disease will not recur, a transplant can increase the likelihood of a cure or at least prolong the period of disease-free survival for many patients.

“Minorities, in general, are very poorly represented in the NMDP,” says Jaime Oblitas, manager of the National Institutes of Health Marrow Donor Program, which participates in the NMDP. “For a patient to have a successful transplant, donor and patient must be compatible genetically, which sometimes only happens when they both come from the same ethnic or racial group.” Only about 20 percent of the volunteer donors on the NMDP registry are from minority groups, while more than 40 percent of those awaiting transplants are minorities.

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