Don Creighton
Former West Tisbury police officer Don Creighton received two transplants for his leukemia. Both anonymous donors came from the national bone marrow registry. The transplants gave Don an extra year of life, precious time he spent with his family and friends. Photo courtesy of Anna Marie D'Addarie

Strangers need a second chance

By Amandine Surier - October 4, 2007

"It was about 20 years ago at a National Shellfisheries Association meeting," remembers Dale Leavitt, a 58-year-old assistant professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. "There was a scientist there that had leukemia so they had a big drive and we all signed up as a gesture."

Eight years later, this Falmouth resident received a registered letter: he was a potential match to someone that needed a bone marrow transplant. "I did a little bit of homework," said Mr. Leavitt, "It was really scary; I heard it was painful and it took a while to recover." However, after doing some soul searching, Leavitt decided to go through with it and went up to Boston for further testing.

Fear seems to be the first reaction when talking about donating bone marrow. Unlike donating blood, most people think that it's a painful process and the idea of someone drilling holes in the back of their pelvic bone often outweighs the satisfaction of saving a stranger's life. Very few know that the process has changed dramatically over the last ten years and is now much less invasive.

"Originally, stem cells were found in the bone marrow, a liquid inside the flat bones of the body," explained Dr. Lewis Lipsy, an associate professor of Hematology and Oncology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City who also practices at Martha's Vineyard Hospital. "Retrieval of these cells required that the donor go to an operating room, be put under generalized anesthesia, and then have multiple biopsies of pelvic bone." The hospitalization was overnight and there was pain for a few days afterwards.

Today, there is an alternative to extract stem cells that does not involve surgery. The process called pheresis is similar to donating blood. A few days before the procedure, the donor is injected with growth factors that induce stems cells to migrate from the bone marrow to the blood stream. The donor is then connected to a machine that extracts stem cells from his blood. Two to three sessions of a few hours each are enough to harvest the much-needed cells.

"This still requires a time commitment on the part of the donor and travel to an approved pheresis center," said Dr. Lipsy, "but it is an overall more pleasant situation." Recipients of stem cell transplants are typically patients with different forms of leukemia, lymphoma, multiple myeloma and sometimes benign blood disorders. After undergoing chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy, patients' blood making functions are weakened or destroyed.

"Donor cells are infused after treatment in order to replace the patient's bone marrow function and restore blood making," explained Dr. Lipsy.

Like always, there are a lot of candidates in need, and too few donors.

"There are upwards of four million donors worldwide, a very small number considering the many cultures in the world and its three billion inhabitants," said Dr. Lipsy. Western Caucasians are typically more likely to find a match, which is why minorities are especially encouraged to participate.

On Columbus Day weekend, Island residents will have the chance to join an international bone marrow transplant registry during two drives, one at the Katharine Cornell Theater in Vineyard Haven and one at the Artisans Fair in West Tisbury. Organized by Anna Hantschar of Franklin, the drives will be the first ones on the Island.

Anna got involved in searching for donors in April after reading an article about Giovanni Guglielmo, a one-year-old boy from New Hampshire who was diagnosed with a rare immune disorder. After donating money and signing up to be a stem cell donor herself, Anna decided to organize bone marrow drives: "I come to the Vineyard every year in October, I thought it would be a good opportunity."

Anna will be assisted during the drives by the Caitlin Raymond International Registry (CRIR), a non-profit coordinating center for stem cell search based at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center.

"We are excited to be there," said Vivian Giampe, assistant manager at CRIR, "we staff the drive and bring all the supplies, educate people, take samples and answer any question they have."

Anyone interested in becoming a donor will have to fill a medical history questionnaire and sign a consent form. They will then be handed a swab to scrape the inside of their cheek. "We bring back the samples to our office in Worcester," said Vivian Giampe. "The personal information is then entered into the data base and the samples taken by carrier to the lab."

The test results are then recorded in the registry computer files and are accessible to transplant centers around the world. If a match is found, the potential donor may be contacted for further testing. From that point, any expense is the responsibility of the patient awaiting the transplant.

"To my knowledge, at least four patients (two of my own) from Martha's Vineyard have received allogeneic bone marrow transplantation procedure," said Dr. Lipsy. "Donors to the Martha's Vineyard drive should know how potentially important their donation can be."

Bone Marrow Drive, 9 am-2 pm, Saturday, Oct. 6. Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring St., Vineyard Haven. Also Sunday, Oct. 7, 10 am-4 pm. Grange Hall, West Tisbury.

Amandine Surier is a contributing writer.