Thursday, 28 February 2013

Scheme to expand local bone marrow donor pool

More donors mean more local tissue matches and also cheaper transplants
By Poon Chian Hui, The Straits Times, 27 Feb 2013

THE tissues for four in five bone marrow transplants are flown in from abroad, because no matches can be found in the small donor pool in Singapore.

Obtaining tissues from overseas not only takes longer, it also costs tens of thousands of dollars more. The solution - to widen the pool of donors, and the Bone Marrow Donor Programme (BMDP) hopes to do just that.

It aims to expand the entire registry to some 75,000 people by 2015 - a figure that BMDP president Jane Prior believes would be a "tipping point".

That would be an increase of 20,000 donors in the next three years. Ms Prior said: "We hope that with the addition, at least 50 per cent of donor matches can be locally sourced."

Of the 153 bone marrow transplants performed in Singapore in the past five years, only 23 used local donor tissues. The rest were flown in from locations such as Taiwan, the United States, Germany and Hong Kong.

Procuring bone marrow from the US can cost patients more than $57,000 - when it costs $19,000 to do this locally.

For Taiwan, the procurement costs can run up to $26,000.

Ms Prior said the steeper cost is a "driving force" for growing the local registry.

More people will need such transplants as the population ages and more people come down with blood cancers, said Dr William Hwang, who heads the haematology department of the Singapore General Hospital (SGH), one of four hospitals that perform these transplants.

Dr Hwang, who is also president of the World Marrow Donor Association, said the number of such transplants performed at SGH has gone up by 10 per cent every year in the last five years.

Last year, SGH carried out over 80 transplants on patients with diseases such as leukaemia and bone marrow failure syndromes. He expects this figure to hit 100 a year by 2015.

Getting local tissues could also cut down the time taken for the whole process, which is now between 12 weeks and 16 weeks from the initial donor request to the transplant, said Ms Prior. A local transplant procedure could be done in as quickly as two weeks.

The BMDP is also targeting younger donors, as patients tend to fare better if the donor is younger. It plans to make use of social media to reach out to them.

But there are hurdles to overcome, said Dr Hwang. "Many people seem to think that donating marrow is something dangerous that will rob them of their strength and vitality."

Donor Andy Lee, 39, said this is simply a myth. The customer relationship consultant and father of four donated his bone marrow to a young boy in 2002.

"There was just a bit of numbness at the pelvic area, where they did the extraction," he said, adding that he would do it again.

"Not everybody can be in a position to save another life."

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