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Matching Patients with Donors

Transplant Basics

Every three minutes someone in the United States is diagnosed with a blood cancer like leukemia.
For many, their only hope for a cure is a bone marrow transplant.
Make today the day you save lives through bone marrow donation.
Discover the basics of a life-saving transplant.

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Patients in need of a bone marrow or umbilical cord blood transplant are searching for a match. Matching a patient with a donor is not the same as having the same blood type. It’s much more complex. Doctors look for a donor with a close human leukocyte antigens (HLA) match to the patient. This close HLA match is the most important factor in finding the best donor for a patient.

What is the likelihood of finding a match?

A patient’s likelihood of finding a donor match on The Marrow Match Registry ranges from 66% to 97%, depending on ethnic background. Because the markers used in matching are inherited, patients are most likely to match someone of the same ethnic ancestry. Some ethnic groups have more complex tissue types than others. This is especially true for people who identify as multiracial. Adding more potential donors and cord blood units to increase the ethnic diversity of the registry in some cases, will increase the variety of tissue types available, helping more patients find the match they need. Adding more potential donors and cord blood units to increase the ethnic diversity of the registry remains an important focus for The Marrow Match Registry

How donors and patients are matched

Donors and patients are matched by their HLA type, which is different from matching blood types. A simple cheek swab can help us determine whether you’re a close bone marrow match for a patient. The best marrow transplant outcomes happen when a patient’s human leukocyte antigen (HLA) and the HLA of a registry member or cord blood unit closely match. This is much more complex than matching blood types. HLA is a protein – or marker – found on most cells in your body. Your immune system uses HLA markers to know which cells belong in your body and which do not. There are many HLA markers that make a person’s tissue type unique; however, matching certain markers is what is critical to a successful transplant.

What makes a close match?

Be The Match Registry® is a listing of potential donors and cord blood units and their HLA types. When people join Be The Match Registry, they provide a sample of their DNA by swabbing their cheek. This cheek swab is tested for a minimum of 6 basic HLA markers. A patient’s doctor will usually choose several donors who appear to match the patient at a basic level. The doctor will ask that these donors have additional tests. These detailed tests will show which donor’s HLA most closely matches the patient’s HLA markers. These tests are usually blood tests or additional cheek swabs. About 8% of members who complete additional testing will go on to donate. If a member is asked to donate, that means they are the closest HLA match to the patient – the best donor

How does a patient's ethnic background affect matching?

When it comes to matching human leukocyte antigen (HLA) types, a patient’s ethnic background is important in predicting the likelihood of finding a match. This is because HLA markers used in matching are inherited. Some ethnic groups have more complex tissue types than others. So a person’s best chance of finding a donor may be with someone of the same ethnic background.

Why a donor’s age matters

When it comes to identifying a marrow donor, doctors weigh many factors. One factor is the age of the donor. Medical research has shown that cells from younger donors lead to better long-term survival for patients after transplant. Doctors request donors in the 18-44 age group more than 95% of the time.

How old do you have to be to donate bone marrow?

A person must be at least 18 to donate because donation is a medical procedure and the person must be able to give legal informed consent. Also, because it’s a voluntary procedure a guardian or parent can’t sign a release or give consent for someone under age 18.

What is the cut off age for being an adult marrow donor?

Everyone on The Marrow Match Registry is critical to saving lives. Once you become a registry member, you are listed on the registry until the age of 61, unless you request to be removed from the registry before then. Anyone between the ages of 18 and 60 who meets health guidelines and is willing to donate to any patient in need is able to join the registry. As we age, the chances of a complication resulting from any medical procedure increases. People over age 60 are at a slightly increased risk of complications during and after donation. People over age 60 may not join the registry. Age guidelines are in place to protect the health of potential donors and to provide the best possible treatment for patients. The age limit is not meant to discriminate in any way.