The Vital Role of Stem Cell Donors
- Pete McCleave, 45, is a multiple myeloma warrior searching for a donor match for a stem cell transplant, which replenishes stem cells in bone marrow that were destroyed from cancer treatment.
- After encouraging thousands of new people to join a donor registry, McCleave’s efforts have led to 20 people in need of a stem cell transplant finding their perfect match.
- When someone needs a stem cell or bone marrow transplant, they can undergo either an autologous transplant (in which the cells used are from your own body) or an allogeneic transplant (in which the cells used are from a donor).
- When an allogeneic transplant is needed, that’s where organizations like Be the Match come in to connect patients with donors who have the same tissue type.
- Anyone between the ages of 18 and 40 can register with Be the Match. And people of ethnically diverse backgrounds are encouraged to join the registry to help people of the same background find their perfect match.
The father of two was told he had seven years to live in 2017 after being diagnosed with a type of blood cancer called multiple myeloma. He was also told that finding a stem cell donation that matched could be his key to survival.Read More
"To know that 20 people have found their match because of this work is phenomenal. I am immensely proud," the former investment banker said.
"Having spent so much of my career doing something which didn't have much emotional substance behind it, to now be able to do something which has value beyond earning a salary is just fantastic. It has more fulfillment than any job I've done because it is life-changing.
"For people to hear we have found a match, I can only imagine how they feel."
Since his diagnosis, he’s led to over 100,000 additions to a United Kingdom-based donor registry and raised nearly $50,000 for a blood cancer charity.
He’s also started Gob For Good an organization aiming “to make more people aware of the stem cell register and how important it is in the fight against blood cancer” with a particular emphasis on encouraging people of ethnic minority groups to register.
Multiple Myeloma Treatment Resources
Pete has yet to find a stem cell match of his own, but he’s refusing to throw in the towel.
“The last thing I want my kids to remember about me is that he just gave up,” he said.
“If I can't be a role model for them when they're older, the least I can do is be a role model for them today.”
Why Do People Need Stem Cell Donations?
Both bone marrow transplants and stem cell transplants are procedures that replenish stem cells in bone marrow that were destroyed by high doses of chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy to kill cancer or treat another disease. According to City of Hope, the main difference between the two transplants is the origin of the stem cells:
- Bone marrow transplant stem cells are harvested from the bone marrow.
- Stem cell are harvested from the bloodstream.
Sometimes bone marrow transplants are simply referred to as stem cell transplants. And it’s important to note that stem cells from the bone marrow and the bloodstream are both responsible for restoring and renewing blood cells.
When someone needs a stem cell or bone marrow transplant, they can undergo either an autologous transplant (in which the cells used are from your own body) or an allogeneic transplant (in which the cells used are from a donor).
When an allogeneic transplant is needed, that’s where organizations like Be the Match come in to connect patients with donors who have the same tissue type.
How to Become a Donor in the United States
Be the Match is a nonprofit that considers itself the “global leader in bone marrow transplantation.” You can join their donor registry if you are between the ages of 18 and 40.
If you join, you will have to swab your cheeks at home after filling out an online form or register at a local donor registry drive in your community so that your HLA type can be determined.
HLA, or human leukocyte antigen, typing is used to match patients and donors because “HLA are proteins — or markers found on most cells in your body” and “your immune system uses these markers to recognize which cells belong in your body and which do not.”
Once you’re in the system, it is a waiting game. You could be contacted shortly after your HLA type is determined, or it could take years because some HLA types are more common than others and there are many different types.
Donating as someone with a more common type could lead to more life-saving matches, but donating as someone with a less common type could mean you are the perfect match for someone who didn’t have many or any other matches in the registry.
To help more patients find a donor, more people with ethnically diverse backgrounds need to join the registry.
If you are contacted as a match, you will have to follow these steps before actually making a donation:
- Update your health information with a thorough questionnaire.
- Participate in an information session to learn about the two methods of donation: a peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation or marrow donation.
- Sign a consent form if you agree to donate.
- Undergo a physical exam to see if your donation would pose any risk to your or the patient.
- Give blood samples at a donor center.
If you’ve completed all these steps and you’re still considered a good match, it will be time to donate via one of the two methods.
A bone marrow donation is a surgical procedure done at a hospital operating room where doctors use needles to withdraw liquid marrow from both sides of the back of your pelvic bone.
A PBSC donation is done via a nonsurgical procedure called apheresis and is considered investigational because a study is currently being done to find out if blood-forming cells from the peripheral blood (the bloodstream) can be used as effectively as blood-forming cells from bone marrow for unrelated donor transplantation.