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Multiracial Patients May Have Difficulty Finding Suitable Donors

Jeff Chiba Stearn’s documentary, Mixed Match, offers insight into the turbulent reality of cancer patients who are awaiting a suitable donor for a potential stem cell treatment. In particular, the documentary focuses on mixed-race patients whose chances of finding a matched-donor are significantly reduced when compared to patients from the majority demographic.

Multiracial patients have a harder time finding a match

Public cord blood banks work by pooling cord blood units from voluntary donors and selectively processing samples that meet the necessary requirements. The cord blood units that are processed and stored then become readily accessible for any patient who is eligible. It is not as easy as it sounds, though, because the cord blood unit and the recipient must be a match for treatment. Further, genetic background matters significantly when determining a donor match. Those who have mixed ethnicities, therefore, will take more time in finding a suitable donor—sometimes not even finding any donors at all, simply because there is a reduced chance that a mixed-race donor or two has donated cord blood to the particular registry.

Risks of a non-compatible transplant

What happens if transplant is carried out between a donor and recipient that do not match? Bone marrow transplant, for instance, carries a risk of graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), which occurs because the recipient’s immune system recognizes the donor cells as “non-self” or “foreign”, akin to fighting cancer cells or bacteria. There are, of course, medications that suppress the immune system, but this may lead to further medical complications. Although generally treatable, GVHD can cause significant damage to the lungs, intestines, liver and skin, and may also increase the risk of a severe infection.

Cord blood as the solution

With cord blood transplant, however, a major advantage lies in the fact that cord blood is essentially full of hematopoietic stem cells—meaning, they have yet to differentiate into specialized cells that compose the blood and immune system. Cord blood stem cells, when transplanted into the recipient, naturally differentiates into those specialized cell types in the recipient’s body accordingly. Hence, risk of GVHD in cord blood transplant is significantly lower than any other type of transplant. With this healing ability of umbilical cord blood, one can imagine how much more successful it is in treating terminal disorders. With a higher success rate equating to a higher demand, it is no wonder why mixed-race patients have a hard time in finding a suitable match.

Looking into family blood banking

Stem cell banking has paved the way for cancer patients to have a valuable tool in their arsenal of treatment opportunities. Unfortunately, public stem cell banks only preserve blood that mirrors those from the majority ethnic and racial demographic.

Fortunately, a family cord blood bank, in comparison, offers a more exclusive approach by banking a newborn baby’s umbilical cord blood for the future use of any family member. This is especially beneficial for families with a history of cancer and disorders involving the blood, metabolism, and immune system. A person with sickle-cell anemia, for instance, can benefit from the stem cells harvested from the cord blood of a sibling preserved by a family bank. In this case, the odds that the donor and recipient will match are higher because their genetic backgrounds are expected to be of a similar make-up. Further, the risk of immune system rejection by the recipient is lower. With this advantage, mixed-race patients have a higher chance in finding a matching donor within the family and receive stem cell transplant treatments with lower risk. In the end, choosing a family cord blood bank to process and cryopreserve the stem cells from a newborn baby’s umbilical cord offers a reassuring opportunity for all families, and especially mixed-race families, in the fight against cancer.

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