More than ever before, prospective donors on Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry are essential for patients who need a stem cell transplant.
Every year, hundreds of Canadian patients require lifesaving stem cell transplants to treat more than 80 diseases and disorders, including cancers. Unfortunately, three-quarters of those patients will not find a match within their own families. To survive, they’ll turn instead to Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry with its database of healthy volunteer donors and its connections with similar registries around the world.
Joining the registry is a long-term commitment because a call to donate could come many years down the road ― as Melissa Deleary discovered.
About seven years ago, while working as a health policy analyst for the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, Melissa organized a workplace event to recruit donors for the registry. As the event organizer, she thought by swabbing her own cheek to collect a DNA sample for the registry she’d inspire others to do the same. But in 2019, while out for a walk on her lunch break, she got a call herself, with news that she was a good match for a patient in need of a stem cell transplant.
It took a moment for the news to sink in.
But Melissa, whose roots are both Dene and Anishinaabe, recognized that she had been given an opportunity to help a patient who was likely another Indigenous person.
“I know there are very few Indigenous people on Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry,” says Melissa. “So when I got the call, I knew it was probably because someone really needed my help.”
The need for diversity in the registry
The best stem cell transplant outcomes happen when a patient’s human leukocyte antigen (HLA) and the HLA of a donor are a close genetic match. Patients with Indigenous, Asian, Hispanic, Black Canadian and mixed-race backgrounds find it especially challenging to find a match because currently, only 33 percent of prospective donors in Canada’s stem cell registry are from these diverse groups.
“I know that Indigenous people have a smaller pool to draw from. Because of their genetic makeup, they’re most likely to find matches within North America,” says Melissa. “I knew it was lucky to find a match. If they were calling me, then somebody really needed it.”
Melissa donated stem cells in August 2019. If she were called to donate again, she said she wouldn’t hesitate, especially knowing the challenge of finding matches for Indigenous patients.
“We need individuals from all ancestral backgrounds to provide matches for patients,” says Dr. Heidi Elmoazzen, stem cells director at Canadian Blood Services. “And with the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the international transport of stem cells, patients in Canada are counting more than ever on donors within Canada.”
Healthy Canadians between 17 and 35 years of age can register online at blood.ca to receive their swab kit in the mail. Scan the QR code to learn more.