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Bone marrow donor

Being a stem cell donor could save a life

Every year, more than 600 Australians living with blood cancer will need an allogeneic stem cell transplant, where they receive stem cells from a matched donor.

In Australia, the Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry matches the stem cells between recipients and donors. Some patients will find a stem cell donor match in their own family, but over 50% will receive stem cells from a matched but unrelated individual. 

Why Australia needs more blood stem cell donors

With over 50% of patients needing to find a blood stem cell donor from the Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry, the more donors signed up means there is a larger donor list of people who could be potential matches.

The Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry is currently unable to meet the needs of all Australian patients requiring a stem cell transplant from locally registered donors. Approximately 74% of all stem cell donations in Australia come from overseas which means the Australian registry must work with international bone marrow donor registries to look for a matched donor. 

In some cases, for patients who have Indigenous heritage or are from communities not well represented in international registries, a suitable donor can’t be found. 

Who can donate blood stem cells?

The Leukaemia Foundation encourages all eligible Australians to join the registry. In particular, we urgently need younger donors (aged 18 – 35) to register, as stem cell donations from younger donors can result in better outcomes for patients. Ethnic diversity is also important, as patients are more likely to find a match with a donor from the same ethnic background.

Young men also make particularly important donors – as men on average are physically larger than women, they literally have more to give.   

The Leukaemia Foundation is calling on all eligible Australians, especially those from diverse-ethnic backgrounds, to become stem cell donors and join the Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry.

Become a stem cell (bone marrow) donor

You can become a stem cell (bone marrow) donor by registering with the Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry here.

If you can give blood, you can volunteer to become a stem cell donor through the Australian Red Cross Lifeblood. And, importantly, some of the restrictions that apply to blood donation do not apply to stem cell donation i.e. people with tattoos or gay and bi men can join the registry and become a donor.   

However, donors that join the registry through the Australian Red Cross Lifeblood may still be required to meet their eligibility criteria. Please refer to the Lifeblood eligibility criteria for more information.

Next time you are giving blood, ask a Lifeblood staff member about becoming a stem cell donor. Alternatively, if you can’t give blood, you may still be able to register – you’ll need to contact Lifeblood on 13 14 95.

How donation works

After joining the Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry, you may be called upon to donate you stem cells. If you match with a patient, you’ll be contacted and asked to provide a second blood sample to confirm the match.

You will then go through a process with a team of doctors and health professionals to help you understand the simple procedure, and any potential side effects involved in donating your stem cells.

The donation procedure happens most commonly by peripheral blood stem cell donation – a procedure very similar to donating blood.

In the lead up to your procedure, you will receive injections of medication called filgrastim of GCSF which are given for several days before the donation. These injections increase the number of blood stem cells in your blood stream.

The process of donating is called apheresis and is generally a day procedure which takes 4 to 6 hours, and you’ll usually able to go home after the procedure.

Usually you will have two cannulas (intravenous tubes) inserted into your veins in your arms. Your blood is taken from one cannula, goes through a machine that takes out the stem cells, and then your blood is returned through the second cannula on your other arm.  

Your donated stem cells are then taken to a lab, where they are prepared to be given to the person receiving the stem cell transplant.

Some things to note about the procedure:

  • During the collection you may experience nausea, a tingling feeling or chills, these effects can be managed with medication and resolved soon after the procedure is complete.
  • You may need to return for a second donation the following day depending on how many blood stem cells are needed.

Jack’s special powers!

Jack Jacobson holding his swab test kit

When the Registry called and said I had been matched I felt like I had a unique opportunity to really help someone in need. It’s not often you get that sort of call.

The recipient didn’t need just anyone’s cells but specifically my cells because these had the best chance of success. I think this appeals to the little bit of vanity in all of us – almost as if donors have special powers in a time of need. But it also meant I was 100% committed to making the donation and I did not begrudge the minor aches and pains that came with it.

When I think about it now I know I was in a wonderfully privileged position to help the recipient, and I wholeheartedly hope they are well.

– Jack Jacobson, stem cell donor