Staff writer

Wouldn’t it be rewarding to save someone’s life by donating a renewable resource in your body?

Despite technological progress in recent years in treating patients with severe blood diseases, the government-backed Japan Marrow Donor Foundation says many more donors are needed.

“We are currently campaigning to secure 300,000 donor registrations, which we think will enable about 90 percent of patients to find donors matched on a molecular level,” said Kenichi Hanioka, general manager of the foundation.

As of last week, 115,550 people had registered with the program as willing to donate marrow and 1,614 patients were listed as prospective recipients, according to Yuichi Yamazaki, a senior official of the foundation.

The total number of bone marrow transplants arranged by the foundation between unrelated people reached 2,000 last week, he said.

Bone marrow transplants have been used for nearly three decades in efforts to save the lives of people with fatal blood diseases, including forms of leukemia and hypoplastic anemia.

To conduct a marrow transplant, the donor and recipient must have matching types of human leukocyte antigens.

Among brothers and sisters with the same parents, the chance of having the same HLA type is 25 percent.

Among people who are not related by blood, the chance is between one in several hundred and one in tens of thousands, the foundation said.

According to the foundation, about 6,000 people develop serious blood diseases each year in Japan. However, the vast majority cannot find donors among blood relatives.

The foundation was established on Dec. 18, 1991, to help patients who cannot find donors among their relatives.

The survival rate of marrow transplant recipients is between 20 percent and 80 percent, depending on the conditions of the recipients and the stage of their diseases.

The survival rate can be raised by reviewing past cases, said Shinichiro Okamoto, a blood disease specialist and assistant professor at Keio University Hospital in Tokyo.

A transplant involves extracting 800 cc to 1,000 cc of bone marrow from an anesthetized donor’s hip bone through a large needle and infusing it into one of the recipient’s veins, the doctor said.

“One in every five donors said their sleep was partly disturbed by pain after waking up from the anesthesia, but no donor has said the pain was unbearable,” Yamazaki said.

Donors have to be hospitalized for four days on average to recover from the procedure, according to Yamazaki.

“We would like companies to create a working environment in which their employees can take four days off to serve as bone marrow donors,” Hanioka said, noting this is no easy option in Japan.

To save more lives, the foundation has promoted international cooperation to get more suitable marrow donors.

In April 1997, the foundation teamed up with the National Marrow Donor Program in the United States and the Tzu Chi Marrow Donor Registry in Taiwan.

The U.S. group had more than 3.57 million registered prospective donors as of March, and 8,196 transplants were facilitated through the program among nonblood-
related people. The Taiwanese group has secured more than 150,0000 donor registrations, Yamazaki said.

So far, 40 Japanese patients have gotten marrow from the U.S. group and four have received marrow from the Taiwan organization, he said.

“Although no bone marrow has been donated from Japan either to the U.S. or to Taiwan, we hope to contribute in the near future. We want to increase the number of donor registrations at JMDP for that purpose, too,” he said.

The Japan Marrow Donor Program, which JMDF runs, has also teamed up with its counterpart in South Korea. Bone marrow taken from a Japanese man in his 20s was flown on May 14 from Nagoya airport to South Korea, where it was transplanted into a female leukemia patient in her 40s.

“The tieup will improve chances for patients in both countries, because South Koreans and Japanese are said to have close ethnic backgrounds,” Yamazaki said.

The Korean Marrow Donor Program, which was established in 1994, had about 18,500 registered prospective donors as of the end of April, according to Yamazaki. However, some people may be hesitant to register as a bone marrow donor because of concerns over the risk of hospital infection and malpractice.

In February 1998, a woman in her 20s developed acute hepatitis C after donating marrow at Shinshu University Hospital in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture. Last month, the foundation reported that she probably contracted the virus at the hospital. It is believed to be the first hospital infection of a marrow donor.

“That was something that should have never happened,” Yamazaki said, adding that the donor underwent interferon treatment and was diagnosed as fully recovered from the illness as of January.

The foundation has notified medical facilities authorized to conduct marrow transplants to take precautionary measures to prevent hospital infections, the official said.

Hanioka said they will try harder so that the accident at the university hospital will not leave a bad impression on the public, because marrow transplants depend heavily on goodwill.

Okamoto of Keio University said that although it would not be possible to completely eradicate the risk of infection at hospitals, more infection control measures should be institutionalized.

Healthy people aged between 20 and 50, regardless of nationality, can register with JMDP. For more information, call JMDF at (0120) 445-445 or (03) 3355-5041.

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