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Bone marrow donors volunteering to save lives

By Cpl. Micah Snead | | April 29, 2005

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Marines and Sailors are often called upon to sacrifice their time, effort and sometimes lives for the sake of others.

The C. W. Bill Young/Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program is now looking for service members who are willing to sacrifice some bone marrow.

The BYMDC travels around the country visiting military bases searching for potential donors. A drive could be held aboard the Air Station sometime in May or June. A donor drive that began aboard Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., on behalf of a Marine from 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, eventually netted 6,000 new potential donors in March.

A bone marrow transplant is performed by extracting and filtering stem cells that are normally found in the bone marrow and giving them back either to the same person or to another person, according to Mary Kugler, a registered pediatric nurse with a Master’s degree in nursing who provides home nursing care for chronically ill children.

“Bone marrow produces stem cells and these stem cells develop into the body’s blood cells,” Kugler said. “Bone marrow is a critical part of the body because it is the body’s main blood cell ‘factory.’ If something is wrong with the marrow, a person can become very ill, even die.”
Marrow transplants provide the only known cure for many diseases. Approximately 75 percent of transplants arranged by the national marrow donor program are for patients diagnosed with some form of leukemia.

“In diseases such as leukemia and aplastic anemia, the bone marrow is unhealthy,” Kugler said. “The purpose of a bone marrow transplant is to put healthy marrow cells in place of the unhealthy ones. This can treat or even cure the disease.”

The DoD Marrow Donor Program feeds their information into the National Bone Marrow Donor Program to help find potential matches. The Navy first initiated the military program in 1986 and it was later adopted DoD-wide in 1990.

In 1998, the DoD MDP expanded its search for volunteer donors to overseas bases. Using a DNA test developed by the military, the MDP can determine marrow types. The Naval Medical Research Center also developed the basis and technology for large-scale DNA typing. The tests make it easy to hold a donor drive virtually anywhere in the world and the same technology is now being used to DNA type every service member, according to Navy Capt. Dr. Robert Hartzman, former BYMDC director.

“There is a military contingency part of the program,” Hartzman said. “Certain agents, particularly the mustard gas types of chemical warfare agents, and radiation can destroy bone marrow. The DoD needs to be able to respond to casualties who have had their marrow damaged.”

Participants in the marrow donor program  give a small blood sample, sign a consent form and are registered as potential volunteer donors. At the donor center, the blood is typed to determine the Human Leukocyte Antigen. This antigen is a critical factor in determining if transplanted marrow will adapt to a receiver’s body, according to Hartzman.

“It is a completely different set of genes from what we normally think of for blood,” Hartzman said. “Normally, we think of A, B, O and Rh types, which are different genes and really are less important for marrow transplants.”

Once a potential donor attends a drive, their HLA will be typed, their names listed in the national registry and they will be contacted only if needed. A physical examination would then decide if the volunteer is eligible to donate marrow or not.

If stem cells are collected by harvest, the donor will go to the operating room and while asleep under anesthesia, a needle will be inserted into either the hip or breastbone to take out some bone marrow. After awakening, they may feel some pain where the needle was inserted.

If the cells are collected by apheresis, the donor is connected to a machine by a needle inserted in the vein. Blood is taken from the vein, filtered by the machine to collect stem cells, then returned back to the donor through a needle in the other arm.

“Our first responsibility is to the health of the donor,” Hartzman said. “We do not want to put the donor at risk.”

Because healthy marrow continuously regenerates, the donor’s system completely replaces the donated marrow within several weeks.

Staff Sgt. Joseph Lester, weather forecaster, Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron, is hoping that a drive aboard the Air Station could produce similar results to the west coast drive held in March.

“I (was) astounded by what we did,” said Hospitalman Brad Dotson, Weapons Co., 3/7, 29 Palms. “Our efforts here may save someone’s life someday. Knowing that feels great.”

For more information on the DoD Marrow Donor Program, call (800) 627-7693 or visit the website at www.dodmarrow.com. For more information on a donor drive aboard the Air Station, contact Lester at 228-7927.
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