More than 26,000 bone marrow transplants from nonblood-related donors have been performed over the three decades since the Japan Marrow Donor Program (JMDP) was founded. But Yoshihisa Kodera, head of the organization, says it is important to increase the number of donors from younger generations to make it sustainable.
“Donors are the ultimate volunteers,” said Kodera, who serves as a professor emeritus at Aichi Medical University.
JMDP acts as a mediator between bone marrow donors and recipients. A healthy individual will register his or her white blood cell type with the bank and see if it matches a patient suffering from leukemia or another disease that requires a transplant.
For siblings, there is a 25% chance that the white blood cell type will match, but that ratio significantly decreases to one in tens of thousands for those who are not related by blood. This means the bone marrow bank is the last hope for the patient.
JMDP’s predecessor was founded in December 1991, about five years after a bone marrow bank was established in the United States in 1986. And less than seven years after that, the number of registered donors topped 100,000.
“We were skeptical back then whether it would succeed,” recalled Kodera. “Despite the worries, many people actually did register.”
As of the end of November, there were about 538,000 registered donors, with 1,714 patients waiting for a transplant.
At present, about 2,000 to 3,000 new donors register each month. But in February 2019, when swimming star Rikako Ikee made public that she had leukemia, new donor registrations topped 11,000 — more than four times that of a normal month.
Since white blood cell types can be checked by a blood test, many donors register with the JMDP when they donate blood. But many blood donation events have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, the JMDP has maintained the number of new donor registrations, and it plans to call on people to register themselves with the bone marrow bank.
However, since extracting one’s bone marrow for donation is physically challenging, the JMDP deletes donors when they reach the age of 55. Of the registered donors, about 60% are age 40 or older, while only about 16% are age between 18 and 29.
“To increase matches and to enable transplants at the best time for a patient’s treatment, we especially need to increase the registration of younger people,” said Kodera.
JMDP is urging companies to introduce paid leave for such donors, as it takes about 10 days for the entire procedure, including a three-night stay at the hospital.
“I’m always moved by the donor’s sense of mission that he or she is the only one who can save the patient,” said Kodera. “To encourage the mindset of helping each other out, we need to raise awareness within the society even more.”
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