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Donors' stem cells save cancer victims
By Li Jing (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-11-27 09:00

Around 200,000 Chinese are ready to give a bit of themselves literally by donating their stem cells to save desperate patients suffering from leukemia.

The Red Cross Society of China on Friday granted an honorary certificate to Yan Tao, a native of Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, when he became the 200,000th stem cell donor registered in the China Marrow Database.

"The growth of the 'life bank' is much faster than our expectations," said Zhang Zongjiu, a Ministry of Health official.

He recalled that when the database was launched in 2001, the target set for 2005 was for donors to exceed 100,000.

"The donors give desperate blood cancer patients a chance at life. So far, nearly 200 patients have had haematopoietic stem cell transplant operations and have restarted their lives as healthy people," said Zhang.

Zou Longjin, a native of Southwest China's Chongqing Municipality, who was diagnosed with leukemia early last year, is one of the lucky people with a new chance at life.

Zhang Dezhu, a driver in Northeast China's Liaoning Province, who registered as a donor, had nearly identical stem cell traits as Zou's.

In September of last year, stem cells collected from Zhang's blood were transplanted to Zou's body.

Although the two have never met, they have become "siblings" bound by blood.

"My blood type was O before the operation. But now, the blood running in my body is type A, the same as my 'brother' Zhang Dezhu," Zou said.

"It's really magic. A stranger living hundreds of kilometres away became my saviour and brother. Without him, I would not be alive today," said Zou.

Doctors say Human Leukocyte Antigens (HLA) proteins located on the surface of white blood cells and other tissues in the body play a critical role in stem cell transplants.

When two people share the same HLA, they are said to be a "match," and their tissues are immunologically compatible.

People have a one in four chance of being an identical match with their siblings. But the chance of a match can range from one in 400 to one in 10,000 among people who are not blood relatives. For some rare HLA types, the chance of a match can be as tiny as one in millions.

Since most young people in China are members of one-child families, donations are the main source for haematopoietic stem cells in China.

"If the number of registered samples reaches 500,000, then 70 to 80 per cent of leukemia patients in China should be able to find an HLA match and thus have a good chance of survival," said Jiang Yiman, deputy president of the Red Cross Society of China.

She said donating stem cells is a mature and safe process. People aged between 18 and 45 can become stem cell donors.

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