You could give more than presents this Christmas

By Lauren Hoskin

Bone marrow is a soft tissue found on the inside of large bones, and in adults makes up about 4% of total body weight. It is the source of haematopoietic stem cells, which translates from the Ancient Greek “to make blood”. These are multipurpose cells, capable of transforming into various blood components including red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body, white blood cells, which fight infection, and platelets, which help prevent bleeding by forming clots. These blood cells have a  short life span and require constant replenishment. To keep up, the average human requires about 1 billion new haematopoietic stem cells each day – making bone marrow a vital organ.

There are various diseases that affect bone marrow with leukaemia being the most well-known.  Leukaemia is a cancer of the bone marrow, in which the patients’ white blood cells are dividing too fast and not developing fully. In some cases, the appropriate treatment is to replace the patients’ bone marrow, resulting in the production of healthy blood cells. This is called a bone marrow transplant or a haematopoietic stem cell transplant. In these procedures, it is vital that the patients’ immune system is destroyed first, as otherwise the host’s immune system will reject the donated bone marrow, making them even more ill.

It is also crucial that the bone marrow types are closely matched to reduce the chances of the donated cells attacking the host. Matching refers to proteins expressed on the outside of cells, known as antigens. Antigens are like the cell’s uniforms; cells wearing the same uniform regard each other as safe, but on recognising a different uniform the cell will form an attack. About 30% of the time a close family member is a good match. However, this means 70% of the time there is not a good match in the family, so these patients rely on donations made by the public.

You can sign up to be on the bone marrow register when you give blood. Your information is then stored until a close match is in need of a donation. The procedure takes a few days, and can either involve extraction of stem cells through the blood, called a Peripheral Blood Stem Cell donation (PBSC) or extraction of the bone marrow itself through the hip bone. Although maybe painful and irritating, it is a small price to pay for saving another person’s life. So how about signing up? You could give a life-saving gift this Christmas.