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How is COVID-19 affecting stem cell transplantation in Canada?

We sat down with Dr. Heidi Elmoazzen, director of stem cells at Canadian Blood Services, to discuss the impact COVID-19 is having on stem cell transplantation in Canada.

Innovation
March 30, 2020

We expect to see transplant centres in Canada turning more to Canadian donors to help save the lives of patients needing stem cell transplants. That means we need more healthy Canadians, between 17 and 35 years of age, to register online and order their swab kit to be delivered in the mail.

We expect to see transplant centres in Canada turning more to Canadian donors to help save the lives of patients needing stem cell transplants. That means we need more healthy Canadians, between 17 and 35 years of age, to register online and order their swab kit to be delivered in the mail.

What is Canadian Blood Services’ role in stem cell transplantation? 

The stem cells team at Canadian Blood Services operates programs that help patients who can be treated with stem cell transplants. These patients are living with a variety of diseases and disorders, such as leukemia, lymphoma, aplastic anemia, and inherited immune and metabolic disorders.  

One of our programs is the adult stem cell registry, which is a list of potential stem cell donors. This registry is part of an international network of donor registries. We work to recruit healthy and committed Canadian donors, whose stem cells may end up being given to fellow Canadians or to patients in need in other countries.  

We also run a cord blood bank. For this program, we collect umbilical cord blood — a rich source of stem cells — from mothers who have recently given birth. We test the cord blood, and then store it in our cord blood bank. This blood is available to patients in need both in Canada and internationally.  

Finally, we process what are known as autologous stem cells. In this case, patients use healthy stem cells from their own body to replace diseased or damaged cells.  

How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting stem cell registration, donation and transplantation in Canada?  

We’ve made several changes to contribute to collective efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.  

In alignment with public health recommendations, we’ve cancelled group swabbing events. Up until recently, we used these gatherings to recruit people to join the Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry.

We expect to see transplant centres in Canada turning more to Canadian donors to help save the lives of patients needing stem cell transplants. That means we need more healthy Canadians, between 17 and 35 years of age, to register online and order their swab kit to be delivered in the mail.

Our cord blood program has temporarily stopped collecting and processing cord blood units. We’re still distributing previously banked cord blood for transplantation.

In recent weeks, we’ve had some potential stem cell donors back out after they’ve been matched to a recipient, which is concerning. There has been no risk associated with donating stem cells at our collection hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Donating stem cells in Canada continues to be safe for our donors. We remain committed to ensuring that you, as a donor, have a safe, efficient and rewarding experience.

The safety of recipients is also a top priority. That’s why all prospective donors are carefully screened for any symptoms of illness, including very mild ones. As such, our recipients can continue to rely on the safety of the cells they receive through the generosity of committed stem cell donors.

The Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry works with a network of other registries all over the world. Are we seeing global impacts on stem cell donation and transplantation?

With borders closing and flights being cancelled, it has become more challenging to get stem cells from international donors into Canada. This means that patients in Canada are becoming more reliant on Canadian donors. Also, since we can no longer rely on registries in other countries for the stem cells needed by our diverse Canadian population, the current situation also underscores the need for ethnic diversity in our own Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry.  

We’re seeing the same issues in reverse for Canadian donors whose stem cells might be needed for international patients. It’s become really hard to get our product to recipients outside of Canada, even if they’re just across the border in the United States.  

A lot of people are feeling pretty helpless right now. Is there anything Canadians can do to help out in terms of the stem cell program?

If you’re between the ages of 17 and 35, sitting at home and wondering what you can do to help during this time of pandemic, the answer is easy: join the Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry by registering online today. We expect to see transplant centres in Canada turning more to Canadian donors to help save the lives of patients who need stem cell transplants. To meet this increased demand, we need more healthy Canadians, between 17 and 35 years of age, to register online to have a swab kit delivered by mail.  

We also need people to spread the word about the lifesaving impact of stem cell donation. And of course, we still need blood donations from those who are able to give. Sustained blood donations will be essential over the course of this global pandemic.  

Who’s the ideal stem cell donor? 

We’re looking for donors between the ages of 17 and 35.  

Within this age group, we’re looking for donors from all kinds of ancestral backgrounds. Patients of diverse ethnic or mixed-race backgrounds often face more difficulty in finding a suitable donor, and we want to change that. For example, these days, patients of European descent have a 75 per cent chance of finding an optimal donor, whereas patients of black African descent have only a 16 per cent chance.  

With borders closing and transportation options greatly reduced, we’re becoming more dependent on Canadian donors, and more than ever we need our registry to reflect Canada’s diversity.

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