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Stem cell and cord blood donations can save countless lives

Six-year-old Hillary McKibbin dreams of becoming a rock star one day, but first she must fight a rare blood disorder. Thanks to her mother’s recent #StartWithHillary campaign to find a stem cell donor to save her daughter’s life, hundreds of Ottawans have joined Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry.

Hillary’s story is not an isolated one. Every year, hundreds of Canadian patients need life-saving stem cell transplants to treat diseases and blood disorders, and most rely on the generosity of a complete stranger.

Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry is not only of benefit to Canadians, it is also part of an international system to match potential donors and recipients around the world. Today, the registry has close to 450,000 registrants – many of whom signed up during a “swabbing” drive for a particular patient such as Hillary, and patients have access to more than 34 million potential stem cell donors through our international network.

Unfortunately, these numbers don’t tell the full story. There are still challenges in finding a stem cell match. Even though Canadian Blood Services tells new registrants that coming onboard requires a long-term commitment, sometimes for years, about half of those contacted from the registry to launch the actual donation process decline to proceed with the donation. This is potentially devastating for the patient.

Also, patients of diverse ethnic or mixed-race backgrounds often face a much steeper hill when searching for a stem cell match. That is why we encourage people of all backgrounds to consider joining the registry to reflect Canada’s unique diversity. For pregnant moms, there is another way to donate stem cells – cord blood. Cord blood is the blood that remains in the umbilical cord and placenta after the birth of a healthy baby. It is rich in blood stem cells and normally discarded as medical waste.

Canadian Blood Services’ Cord Blood Bank launched in 2013 with four hospital collection sites in Ottawa, Brampton, Edmonton and Vancouver, to provide expectant mothers with the opportunity to donate to a national public cord blood bank. Thanks to our partnership with these four hospitals, our cord blood bank has met its targets for ethnic diversity in cord blood inventory, which currently stands at 61 per cent non-Caucasian.

Joining our stem cell registry and donating cord blood can save countless lives. Register to join the registry or donate cord blood at You and your tiny hero can save lives!

This Op-ed by Dr. Heidi Elmoazzen, director, stem cells at Canadian Blood Services, is an abridged version. Read the full article published in the Ottawa Citizen.