Robin Roberts rallies transplant advocates
As ABC's Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts prepares for a bone marrow transplant this week, the transplant community is praising her efforts to raise awareness about the lifesaving procedure and increase the number of donors.
In June, Roberts said that she would undergo a bone marrow transplant to treat a rare blood disorder, myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), which had damaged her marrow.
Although the disease, once known as pre-leukemia, often arises on its own, Richard Besser, GMA's chief health and medical editor, told viewers it also can follow chemotherapy, "as it did as a result of Robin's successful breast cancer treatment" in 2007.
MDS can be effectively treated with a bone marrow transplant, like various types of leukemia and lymphoma, and some non-cancerous disorders, such as aplastic and sickle cell anemia.
In the procedure, a patient's damaged bone marrow, which no longer makes healthy cells and platelets, is eradicated and then replaced with healthy, donated marrow.
In order to "reconstitute" the marrow, doctors need a supply of blood-forming cells (also known as blood stem cells) that closely match the patient's own cells genetically .
Unlike embryonic stem cells, blood stem cells can be derived from bone marrow, blood circulating around the body and blood from the umbilical cord and placenta after a baby is born, says hematologist-oncologist Colleen Delaney of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
The better the match between donor and recipient cells, the better the chance for transplant success, says Willis Navarro, medical director for transplant services at the National Marrow Donor Program.
Roberts was lucky: Testing revealed that her sister Shelly-Ann was an excellent donor match.
Only 30% of patients needing a transplant find a match in their own family, says the National Marrow Donor Program's Be the Match, the largest U.S. registry matching marrow donors to recipients. The other 70% (more than 10,000 patients a year) have to find an unrelated adult donor or donated umbilical cord blood.
Be the Match provides access to 10 million potential donors and nearly 165,000 cord blood units in the USA. Through partnerships with international registries, an additional 9 million donors and 425,000 units of cord blood are available, says Navarro.
Often treated as waste and discarded, umbilical cords and placentas are rich with blood-forming cells, and more recent studies show the outcomes of cord blood transplants "are just as good as conventional donor outcomes," says Delaney.
Because cord blood transplants don't require the close genetic matching needed for more conventional bone marrow transplants, they hold promise for the thousands each year who can't find a well-matched, unrelated donor, a particular challenge for people of mixed ethnicity and minority backgrounds, says Delaney.
That's why Roberts' story and advocacy are so important.
Since her announcement in June, nearly 40,000 people have joined Be the Match, exceeding the group's typical monthly average by more than 50%. A public service announcement Roberts recorded has not yet aired.
Roberts' story "has resonated with a lot of people, and that's to the benefit of all the folks out there who are looking for a donor," says Navarro.
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