Donating your stem cells could save someone's life - here’s how
A stem cell treatment which could restore damaged eyesight is being developed.
Researchers discovered that the cells of damaged retinas could be repaired by injecting genetically modified stem cells into the eye.
The news comes as comedian Al Murray pushed for stem cell donors to come forward, ahead of a charity gig for blood cancer organisation DKMS.
Murray is trying to raise awareness of the benefits of donating blood stem cells after his seven-year-old nephew was diagnosed with a rare leukaemia last year.
The number of people donating their stem cells has dropped dramatically due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Here’s everything you need to know about the scientific discovery - and how you can donate your own stem cells to save the lives of people with blood cell diseases.
What is a stem cell?
Stem cells are produced by bone marrow, and they have the ability to grow into different types of blood cells such as red and white blood cells and platelets.
A stem cell or bone marrow transplant replaces damaged blood cells with healthy ones and can be used to treat conditions affecting the blood cells, like leukaemia and lymphoma.
The transplant involves destroying the unhealthy blood cells and replacing them with the stem cells removed from the blood or bone marrow.
Often, stem cells are taken from one person - usually a close family member or a match with the same or similar tissue type - and they are transferred to the person that needs them.
How could they be used to treat vision damage?
Researchers in Barcelona recently discovered that modified stem cells could potentially help to cure problems with vision.
They found that the cells of damaged eye retinas send out a rescue signal to attract the stem cells that can repair damage.
Stem cells were genetically engineered to make them more sensitive to those signals.
The modified stem cells were transplanted back into mice and human tissue samples and the researchers found that they flocked to the retina cells in large numbers.
In turn, that kept the tissue of the retina alive and functioning.
The new technique is a breakthrough in stem cell research as it suggests stem cells could help to improve sight, and potentially could cure blindness in the future.
Retinal damage is currently incurable and can cause visual disabilities and blindness, especially in older people.
How can stem cells treat conditions?
Stem cells can already be used to treat a number of conditions where the bone marrow is damaged and unable to produce its own healthy blood cells.
Transplants can be used to treat people suffering from different forms of cancer, with someone else’s tem cells replacing the patient’s blood cells that are damaged or destroyed.
Conditions that stem cell transplants can treat include leukemia and lymphoma, which are cancers affecting white blood cells, myeloma, which affects plasma cells, severe aplastic anaemia (bone marrow failure), and other blood disorders.
A stem cell transplant will usually only be carried out if other treatments have been exhausted, but it could save someone’s life.
How can I donate stem cells?
When it’s not possible to use someone’s own stem cells to treat their condition, they need to come from a donor.
However, to improve the chances of the transplant being successful, the donated cells need to have a very similar genetic marker to the patient’s.
As the number of donors has recently decreased, charities are urgently encouraging healthy people to donate stem cells.
You are able to register to be a donor on the NHS Blood and Transplant website.
The Anthony Nolan charity also takes sign ups, and is specifically looking for younger donors between age 16 and 30.
You will be asked to fill out an application form and will be sent a swab pack so you can be added to the register.
If you ever come up as a match for a patient, you will be contacted by the charity.
Even if you can’t join the register, you can donate to Anthony Nolan to help to grow the stem cell register.