Life-threatening blood cancers may become more difficult to treat due to a sharp decline in potential stem cell donors, charities have warned.
According to DKMS UK, a leading stem cell registry, the number of people who register their genetic information has more than halved since 2019.
“The more people there are on the registries, the more likely we are to find a donor for a patient,” said Dr Katherine Patrick, a consultant pediatric haematologist at Sheffield Children’s Hospital.
“But not just a donor, but a perfectly matched donor.”
Approximately 2,000 people a year in the UK are diagnosed with a condition that will require a life-saving stem cell transplant.
This means taking healthy stem cells from the blood or bone marrow of someone who is a genetic match and transferring them to the patient.
Four-year-old Elsie Cartwright was diagnosed with very severe aplastic anemia in February 2022.
It’s a rare condition that prevents the bone marrow from making new cells, meaning Elsie had little to no immunity to fight infection.
His mother, Laura, said: “The last infection he had they gave him everything, they threw everything at him.
“And we sat around for a bit and they told us that they were doing everything, and that it really was decisive.
“I remember saying to our consultant, ‘I can’t see her go through another infection like this, I don’t think she’ll make it.’
“She just agreed.”
A stem cell transplant was Elsie’s best chance of survival.
Her younger sister, Mya, was not a genetic match, but doctors at Sheffield Children’s Hospital were able to find a stem cell match in the UK stem cell donor registry.
The donor, who remains anonymous, was contacted and agreed to a procedure to extract stem cells.
These were then transplanted to Elsie in May 2022.
Laura said: “Without having the transplant, Elsie would not have been here, essentially.
“She couldn’t have survived without someone else’s immune system and someone else’s bone marrow.
“They have no idea who we are, what it means to us. Not even how old Elsie is. It could be anyone.”
“All they have done is donate his cells and they have saved his life. It is an incredibly selfless act on the part of a stranger.”
Dr Patrick said: “Joining the registry is very simple and nothing people should be scared of.
“You can sign up on the DKMS or Anthony Nolan website and just fill in your details, and they send you a swab to get some DNA and then send it back to you.”
Peter McCleave, 44, has been hoping to find a genetic match since 2017.
The father of two was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer, myeloma, and given seven years to live.
“I’m still looking for that matched stem cell donor,” he said. “I know they’re out there.”
But Mr. McCleave’s Southeast Asian heritage means it’s harder to find a genetic match.
“If you’re a white European, you have more than a 70% chance of finding a matched stem cell donor,” he said.
“But for any other ethnic minority group, your chances of finding a life-saving genetic match drop to 37%.”
He added: “You can potentially save someone’s life with nothing more than a cheek swab, it’s not invasive, it’s not painful.
“We can all help each other through a simple smear on the cheek.”