For many patients diagnosed with leukemia, stem cells offer the last glimmer of hope.
But what are they?
Stem cells are unformed starter cells that are capable of developing into any of the cells present in the bloodstream.
Patients with diseases, which inhibit their ability to produce these cells need a transplant of healthy stem cells.
The treatment rewrites the blood system and can also be used to help with other cancers, illnesses and disorders.
The only problem is that it’s difficult to find a suitable donor.
Last month, a stem-cell donor drive was held at FH Collins high school.
It was the first donor drive in Whitehorse in the past 10 years.
“The reason we actually decided to do it was we have a friend who had been diagnosed (with leukemia) just before Christmas,” said Wendy Close, an organizer of the drive and a teacher at the high school.
“He did not have a related donor; his siblings were not able to donate — they didn’t match.”
Only 30 per cent of patients are able to find a suitable donor from among their relatives.
NDP Leader Todd Hardy was one of these lucky 30 per cent.
“I was very fortunate, my sister ended up being a perfect match,” he said.
Hardy spoke at the drive about his battle with leukemia and the stem cell treatment that saved his life.
“Without it, I would have been dead.”
For those unable to find a suitable donor within their own family, the chances are pretty slim.
“The most shocking thing that we found out was that there’s just over 225,000 Canadians registered,” said Close.
“And there are 11 million worldwide, which isn’t a lot of people when you think about it.”
Why are the numbers so low?
“Ten years ago, when I signed on as a donor, it was blood work — you had to have blood drawn,” she said.
“A lot of people don’t like that, they don’t like needles.”
Now a cheek swab is used to collect important donor information.
No blood or needles are involved.
The inside of the cheek contains certain DNA markers that Canadian Blood Services can use to find possible matches, Close explained.
“If you are looking like you might be a good match for someone, they’ll do follow up blood work.”
The donor is then flown to one of Canada’s 11 collection centres.
The old procedure of a couple of needles into your hip to extract bone marrow and stem cells happens very rarely now, said Hardy.
“For a donor now it is a far, far easier process.”
The donor is given a drug for a couple of days that increases the body’s production of stem cells
They then get hooked up to a machine with a needle in each arm.
“Basically it’s a stem cell separator — blood goes through the machine and separates the stem cells out,” said Hardy.
“It takes about six hours, sometimes it takes two sessions but my sister’s first session worked perfectly fine.”
“Other than some slight discomfort, because of swelling caused by the drugs, it wasn’t painful and she was able to save a life,” he added.
Eligibility has a lot to do with the patient’s ethnic background.
Some ethnic groups, such as aboriginals and Asians have very low numbers of possible donors in the bank.
This means that it is much more difficult to find a match.
“For certain ethnic groups the numbers certainly are pretty frightening,” said Close.
“I was quite shocked.”
About 150 people participated in February’s stem-cell donor drive.
Half of those people showed up at FH Collins to get their cheek swabbed.
The rest did it from home.
“I actually did get a call from the family this weekend saying that they do in fact have a donor,” said Close.
“It wasn’t from this drive, but they do have a donor, so they’re pretty excited about that.”
Anyone can easily become a donor by visiting www.onematch.ca and taking 15 minutes to fill out an application form.
A kit will then be sent by mail so that potential donors can take their own sample at home.
“The real heroes here are the people that choose to become donors,” said Close.
“It’s not just for the person that you’re hoping to support initially. You could be a donor for anyone, anywhere in the world.
“What it is is a chance. You’re giving someone a shot.”