Marrow drive registers 1,010

Donors' blood samples are tested for genetic markers on white blood cells

Posted: Monday, June 13, 2005

A recent drive in Southeast Alaska by private citizens to register bone-marrow donors collected 1,010 blood samples, organizers said.

Alaska has seen successful drives before, but not of so many minorities, said Rachel Boisvert, who manages the Mat-Su office of the Blood Bank of Alaska.

"I've never had a bone-marrow (donor) drive that was that community-based," said Boisvert, who advised the drive's organizers.

Bone-marrow transplants can save the lives of people with leukemia, lymphoma and other blood diseases by providing healthy blood cells.

The drives do not collect bone marrow itself. Donors give small blood samples, which are tested for the genetic markers on their white blood cells.

The recent effort in Southeast Alaska was organized by the family of Alex Cesar, a 6-year-old Juneau boy who is being treated for leukemia at Children's Hospital in Seattle. Alex is part Alaska Native and part Filipino.

Family members started the drive before they knew whether Alex would need a transplant. But they have since learned he should receive one even if the cancer is in remission after chemotherapy.

"His best chance for a definite cure is a transplant," said Dalia Hanna, the nurse practitioner caring for Alex in Seattle.

Helping in the drives were volunteers, such as a drawer of blood from Anchorage and local medics, and the Native-oriented Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium.

Juneau-based Cancer Connection of Alaska paid for the volunteers' airfare, with the help of hefty discounts by Alaska Airlines and Wings of Alaska, said Andrea Quinto, Alex's aunt and a major force behind the drives.

Drives in late May and early June were held in Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Kake, Haines, Angoon and Skagway.

The federal government pays the $65 cost to process blood samples of minorities. It pays only $40 of the cost of Caucasians' samples, blood bank officials said.

Many of the blood samples were drawn from minorities, who are underrepresented in the national registry of donors.

But about 300 samples in the recent drive were given by Caucasians, and the Puget Sound Blood Center in Seattle may not be able to cover the expense, said Andrea Marsden, who supervises the bone-marrow donor department. The center welcomes donations now of money, she added.

Puget Sound Blood Center is the National Marrow Donor Program's donor center for Alaska. In the recent drive in Alaska, Puget Sound supplied the donors' paperwork, and will enter the data into a computer, check the donors' information for physical eligibility, and send the blood samples to the national program, where they are "typed."

It's not unusual for private citizens to organize donor drives, said Pat Thompson, spokesman for the Minneapolis-based National Marrow Donor Program.

"They may get 300 or 400 (donors)," he said. "A thousand's a pretty strong turnout. That's terrific."

The program has registered 5.5 million potential donors in the United States, and has a cooperative agreement with international registries that contain another 4 million donors.

But privately organized drives may have downsides, Marsden indicated.

The drives may not educate potential donors about how big a commitment donating is, she said. The process of donating bone marrow itself can stretch over two months and involves interviews, more blood tests, a physical exam and, finally, undergoing a surgical procedure under anesthesia.

"People need to understand the implications," Marsden said.

Private drives also raise the question of whether donors realize they may be called upon to help someone who wasn't the focus of the drive, she said. They may be less willing to donate to someone else if called upon to do so, she fears.

The family of Alex realized that the drive might not help him but could help others. As they visited Alex in Seattle, and as they collected blood samples in communities, they heard of more and more children from Southeast Alaska who have leukemia.

"There are quite a few kids down there (at Children's Hospital), not just from Alaska. They are all in need," said Alex's father, Robert Cesar.

"I stopped counting at nine (children)," said Alex Viteri of Cancer Connection of Alaska about the leukemia patients he learned of during the drive.

Jennifer Sellen of Anchorage, a former Blood Bank of Alaska trainer who helped in the Southeast drives, said the people who gave blood samples were informed about the process of being donors of bone marrow.

"We did tell them what they were getting into," she said.

Sellen said the donors understood they might be helping anybody, not just Alex.

"They were told more than one time in this process that we don't know who they would be able to help, if anybody, but there's a chance," Sellen said.

The turnout of donors is probably better when there's a name and face attached to it, said Dr. David Vastola, the medical director of community health for SEARHC in Sitka.

One reason the family of Alex stepped in is because blood banks find it very expensive to organize drives in Alaska, and do so infrequently and then in larger cities.

The Blood Bank of Alaska sometimes takes blood samples for bone marrow tests during its regular blood drives, said spokesman Gregg Schomaker. The only sampling it has conducted in Juneau was in October 2004, he said.

It's difficult for the small staff at Puget Sound Blood Center to hold drives in the huge, sparsely populated state of Alaska, Marsden said.

The Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium may take a greater interest in organizing drives, Vastola said.

"Because of our participation in this drive, this has heightened our awareness of the issue and we will try to more proactively address this need in the future," Vastola said.

Quinto, Alex's aunt, would like to see the day that an Alaska family can just walk into a medical lab and get type-tested as potential bone-marrow donors.

"Maybe that's what Alex's job was - to open everybody's eyes to realize this need is not being met," she said.

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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