The Importance of Student Bone Marrow Donors

A quarter of bone marrow or stem cell donors are recruited at university, according to new statistics from Anthony Nolan, the bone marrow register.
Universities are playing a pivotal role in saving the lives of people affected by blood cancer and blood disorders. Since 2013, student donors who have signed up at university have given 227 strangers in desperate need of a transplant the chance of life by donating their stem cells. This accounts for 27% of the 841 unrelated stem cell donations that have occurred in the UK in the last two years.
Anthony Nolan has a collective network of student volunteer groups across the nation, including one in Edinburgh. These groups are known as Marrow, and the first was formed in 1997. Their aim is to add more young people to the register and to raise vital funds. Collectively, Marrow has recruited over 85,000 potential donors and 786 of these people have gone on to donate. Typically, around 1 in 1,200 people on the register go on to donate, so Marrow donors are up to 10 times more likely to save a life than average. This is because students tend to be the healthiest, most physically able candidates. Here in Edinburgh, Marrow has recruited 87 potential donors this year so far.
Charlotte Connolly, Marrow Programme Leader at Anthony Nolan, says, ‘There is a silent lifesaving revolution unfolding at universities across the UK, thanks to our Marrow volunteers. These selfless students are truly having a lifesaving impact, as the amazing statistics show- it’s incredible that they are responsible for a quarter of the lives that we save as a charity. The hours they spend on their timeless campaigning – on top of all their studies – mean that as a charity we can give more blood cancer sufferers a second chance at life’.
Around 2,000 people in the UK need a bone marrow (or stem cell) transplant from a stranger each year. This is usually their last chance at survival. Although awareness of blood cancers and blood disorders has increased among young people in recent years, there is little known about the reality of bone marrow donation.
In the UK, the biggest factors discouraging people from joining the register are fear of pain and danger. Recent research by the University of Pittsburgh, California, has highlighted that religious obligations also discourage people from signing up. Some see bone marrow donation as an ethical breach because it can be seen to provide a foundation for genetic modification as a donor’s stem cells will be put into the recipient’s blood stream where they will grow into red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.
The truth is absolute, however. Stem cell donation is safe. 90% of stem cell donations take place via PBSC (Peripheral Blood Stem Cell donation). This is an outpatient appointment and is similar to taking blood but under a longer period of time. The other 10% of cases will donate through bone marrow, where donors give cells from the bone marrow in their pelvis, whilst under general anaesthetic.
Callum Gribbes signed up to the register through the Glasgow Marrow group during his first year at university. ‘Like most people’, he said, ‘I feared donating would be painful [but] the donation process was made easy by Anthony Nolan and the medical staff involved – as for the pain, it was never worse than discomfort’.
Marrow is encouraging more people to sign up to the register. Men are particularly underrepresented. Those aged 16-30 are most likely to be chosen to donate but they only make up 15% of the register. People from ethnically diverse backgrounds are also underrepresented on the register; where only 60% of transplant recipients receive the best possible match, this drops dramatically to 20.5% if you’re from a black, Asian or ethnic majority background. By building and diversifying the register the charity hopes to be able to provide the best match to even more people with blood cancer.

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