‘Lifesaving’: Canadian Blood Services signs up stem cell donors at N.S. university

Click to play video: 'Nova Scotia students volunteer to become stem cell donors'
Nova Scotia students volunteer to become stem cell donors
WATCH: A country-wide initiative by Canadian Blood Services is aiming to register 1,000 new people to its stem cell donor registry this week. As Megan King reports, swabbing for the program could be life-saving for a patient in need. – Feb 16, 2024

Representatives from Canadian Blood Services were stationed at Dalhousie University on Friday as part of a nationwide initiative to register more people to the non-profit’s stem cell donor registry.

The campaign, dubbed “1,000 swabs”, was created with the objective of adding 1,000 people to Canada’s active stem cell database.

Stem cell transplants are conducted when an individual is no longer able to produce healthy blood cells. The process can treat up to 80 diseases, including cancer, and is sometimes deemed a “last shot” option.

Krista Hanakowski, a community development manager with the Canadian Blood Services, said obtaining 1,000 new registrants isn’t just an arbitrary goal.

“1,000 wasn’t random, there are 1,000 Canadians currently waiting for a stem cell match in Canada. Our hope this week is to get to different university campuses across the country and get that added to the registry,” she said, adding that volunteers can be between the ages of 17 and 35 to join the donor registry.

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“The younger the donor is when they make the donation, the better the outcome for the patient. The sooner they join the registry, the more years they’ll have on the registry where they could be a potential match for somebody who might need it.”

Hanakowski said cancer patients will seek a stem cell transplant from a matching donor when chemotherapy isn’t yielding results.

She said that it only takes about five minutes to complete the registration process, which consists of a volunteer conducting a cheek swab and a short questionnaire.

“Be someone’s hero” is written on pins laid across a Canadian Blood Services registration desk at Dalhousie University on Friday. Megan King

“It truly is a life-saving match for somebody,” she said, adding that it takes about a week for someone to hear back after they send their sample away for processing.

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Hanakowski said that Canadian Blood Services has been able to find donor matches for only half of their patients. This has led to the current push to increase their database.

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“That’s why we need to have more people on the registry and, hopefully, find more matches for people who go looking,” Hanakowski said, stressing that there is “definitely a shortage.”

‘Five minutes could save a life’

Neill Spencer is an example of the difference a stem cell transplant can make.

The Halifax resident, who was diagnosed with acute leukemia at the age of 19, said he received “quite a few bags of blood” during a seven-year span that eventually ended with him undergoing a stem cell transplant procedure.

“My sister was a perfect match. A lot of people aren’t that fortunate, but that was the first place they checked. I really lucked out on that one,” he said, adding that only about 25 per cent of patients will see their blood match with a sibling.

“With the one match program, people get put on the registry and if they (Canadian Blood Services) come knocking, you have the opportunity to assist someone in need or choose not to if the timing’s not right for you.”

Neill Spencer received a matching stem cell transplant from his sister, allowing him to overcome cancer in his mid-twenties. Megan King

Spencer said if his sister’s blood cells hadn’t been compatible at the time, knowing there was a growing number of options would “mean everything” to him.

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He said he encourages anyone to register and become a stem cell donor for what could end up being a life-saving transplant.

“Five minutes could save a life,” he said.

“I know we live very busy lives and sometimes it’s hard to stop and smell the roses, but today is the type of day where you should stop and smell the roses.”

‘It’s such an easy thing to do’

Grace Law was one student who registered to become a stem cell donor on Friday. She said she was “really happy” when she came across the opportunity on campus.

“It’s such an easy thing to do. Why wouldn’t you want to support the other people in your community and in Canada?” she asked.

“You never know when you’re going to need support, so it’s always great to be a good community member and member of society.”

For those who missed out on Friday’s registration drive, Hanakowski said people can still order swabbing kits online and complete the process from home.

“It comes straight to your house, (you) do your cheek swab and send it all back,” she said.

She said the registry could use more individuals with a range of ethnic backgrounds as two-thirds of the stem cell database is currently people of Caucasian descent.

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“We need matches of all ethnicities. You do find your best chance of finding your match within your own ethnicity.”

The Canadian Blood Services representative said for cancer patients, seeking a stem cell transplant is considered their “last chance.”

“It means that the chemo is not working, the radiation is not working. They’ll give a patient the highest dose they can of those things to kill all their diseased cells and then they will give them the donation of healthy cells from a match donor.

“This is somebody’s last chance at beating cancer.”

Click to play video: 'Canadian Blood Services coming to Dalhousie and Acadia to recruit stem cell registrants'
Canadian Blood Services coming to Dalhousie and Acadia to recruit stem cell registrants

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