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Michigan's first Bone Marrow Transplant Awareness Day inspired by U-M cancer patient's lifesaving treatment
ANN ARBOR, Mich. - After a bone marrow transplant saved Tom Hickner's life earlier this year, he wanted to say thank you. But he didn't stop at thanking his brother, who served as his donor, or the team at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center that cared for him before, during and after the transplant.
Instead, Hickner, who is also the County Executive of Michigan's Bay County, approached his state senator, Jim Barcia, with an idea: What if the state set aside a day to recognize the life-saving power of bone marrow and blood stem cell transplants, and to raise public awareness about the need for more donors?
This Thursday, Hickner's idea will become reality. April 24 has officially been declared the first-ever Michigan Bone Marrow and Blood Stem Cell Transplant Awareness Day in a resolution passed by the state Senate and a proclamation issued by Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
At a press conference that morning at the statehouse in Lansing, Hickner and his brother will join Barcia, state representative Joseph Rivet, state health officials and U-M medical team members to discuss the growing importance of stem cell transplants in treating many forms of cancer and blood diseases.
Stem cells can be taken from the bone marrow or blood of donors,or the umbilical cords of newborn babies, and used to cure patients with leukemia, lymphoma, sickle cell anemia and many other diseases. Once seen as a last-resort treatment with major risks, transplants of marrow and blood stem cells are now often used as a front-line treatment, and have become far more effective and safer.
"Successes like Tom Hickner's are the result of decades of research, remarkable advances in patient care and teamwork among doctors, nurses, and many others," says James Ferrara, M.D., director of the Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center, who will speak at the press conference. "But as wonderful as that team is, the real heroes of the transplant story are the donors, and we need more of them to help give the gift of life."
Just a teaspoon of blood can reveal a person's stem cell type, so they can register as a potential donor for a patient with the same cell type. And while many donations are still drawn from the marrow of the donor's hip bone, some donors can give blood stem cells through a procedure that resembles a regular blood donation.
"The more donors who are in our registries, the better the chances of finding a match for each patient," Ferrara says. "This is especially true for members of ethnic minorities, where identifying a match can often pose a particular challenge."
Each year an estimated 30,000 Americans, including more than 1,000 Michigan citizens, are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases that can now be treated successfully by transplanting bone marrow or blood stem cells. The cells cure blood-related cancers and other disorders by replacing the patient's diseased blood cell production system with a new one generated by powerful, versatile blood-forming stem cells.
The stem cells can come either from the patients themselves, or from a relative or an unrelated volunteer. The donor's white blood cell type must match the recipient's cell type as closely as possible for the greatest chance of success. Many patients in need of a bone marrow or stem cell transplant wait for months or years until a suitable match is found, but national registries and local donation campaigns are helping to speed the process.
To learn more about registering to donate marrow or blood stem cells, or a baby's umbilical cord blood, visit www.marrow.org, the web site of the National Marrow Donor Program.
In Michigan, the NMDP works with blood centers in Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids to conduct bone marrow drives around the state.
At the drives, potential donors can give bloodsamples for cell typing, and sign agreements about their willingness to donate if their cell type matches someone who needs a transplant. For information, or to find out when a drive is scheduled, call one of the centers: Detroit, 313-494-2774, Grand Rapids (covers western, central and northern Michigan), 866-MI-BLOOD, or Lansing, 800-968-4283, ext. 330. The national hotline is 800-MARROW2.
Fittingly, the Michigan awareness day falls during national Donate Life Month, formerly known as "Organ Donor Awareness Month" and officially declared by President George W. Bush. The month-long observance is aimed at recognizing and increasing the number of Americans who donate blood, who register to donate organs and tissue upon their death, or who donate bone marrow, blood stem cells and certain organs while they're alive.
In addition to encouraging bone marrow donor registration and donation, the Michigan senate resolution and governor's proclamation both salute the state's five centers where bone marrow and blood stem cell transplants take place.
The U-M center is the state's oldest, largest and most active bone marrow and blood stem cell transplant program. Its team performed 234 transplants in 2002, and has performed more than 2,000 since the program began in the late 1980s, making it one of the ten most active in the nation.
The U-M program has a special emphasis on research and education. U-M researchers have been granted millions of dollars in funding from government and private sources to study different treatments, and to investigate the basic molecular reasons for complications such as graft-versus-host disease, in which the patient's body is attacked by the transplanted cells.
Some U-M discoveries have already been turned into new approaches for delivering stem cells or treating the patient before or after the transplant takes place.
"Our research facilities are just an elevator ride away from our clinic," says Ferrara, a professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at the U-M Medical School. "Our hope is to create the state of the art, bringing advances from the laboratory bench as rapidly as possible to our patients' bedsides."
The U-M educates current and future health professionals about bone marrow transplant. Medical students, residents and fellows, as well as students in other health professions, train with the team, while doctors from around the state attend continuing education sessions given by the U-M team.
Written by Kara Gavin