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OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network

Children often help us recall simpler times when hardships were unknown and joy came easily from singing and dancing. However, at only four years old, Alysha Dykstra found her dreams replaced by the sound of beeps from the various machines surrounding her hospital bed.

Diagnosed in 2008 with a rare form of leukemia, Alysha’s carefree childhood came to a grinding halt as she underwent a regimen of aggressive cancer treatments at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ontario. As further treatment failed, she was transported to The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. In June 2009 she received an umbilical cord blood stem cell transplant from a donor unrelated to her.

On Nov. 5, 2012, Alysha — now eight and cancer-free — came to Ottawa with her family to help announce the first collection site for the future national public cord blood bank. The site at The Ottawa Hospital is the result of cooperation between the hospital and Canadian Blood Services and will be opening in June of this year. This partnership agreement will span the current validation phase (when all equipment and processes are demonstrated to be functioning properly) to ensure the safety of all donors and patients, as well as the full collection phase of the program ( when cord blood stem cells are collected and stored for future use by Canadian and international patients). Alysha’s story underscores the real need for Ottawa-area mothers to consider donating their baby’s cord blood during both parts of this program. Currently, about 1,000 patients are waiting for a stem cell match in Canada. Approximately 50 per cent of patients who need an unrelated blood stem cell transplant are unable to find a suitable match.

The need is heightened for patients from diverse populations, particularly those from Aboriginal, Black and multi-ethnic backgrounds who often face increased complexities in finding a matched donor. Their best chance of finding a match lies with someone of similar ancestry.

Building a national public cord blood bank will help close the gap faced by patients by offering additional sources of stem cells and more matching possibilities.

Canadian Blood Services continues to work with partners within these communities to deliver this message of need and urgency, including partners such as the Aboriginal Nurses Association of Canada.

President Dr. Evelyn Voyageur shared her perspective on the challenges of Aboriginal patients: “It is very important that we educate the Aboriginal people on the the national public cord blood bank, so that these same patients have the matches they need to get well. With only 0.9 per cent of the overall stem cell registry First Nation, Inuit or Metis, it is hard for our 13 Aboriginal patients to find a stem cell match,” says Dr. Voyageur.

Echoing this attention to diversities, Dr. Graham Sher, CEO of Canadian Blood Services, called the the national public cord blood bank a “long term investment in the future of health care in Canada.

“The goal is to create more transplant opportunities for Canadian patients with a cord blood bank that is reflective of Canada’s growing ethnic diversity,” says Dr. Sher. “This partnership represents a joint effort to close the diversity gap thereby providing more hope to patients waiting for their unrelated stem cell match.”

As one of Canada’s 14 stem cell transplant centres in Canada, The Ottawa Hospital continues to keep patient care front and centre. Dr. Jack Kitts, President and CEO of The Ottawa Hospital, highlighted that stem cells from umbilical cords will cause fewer complications in patients: “Transplanting anonymous allogenic (unrelated) cord blood stem cells can reduce the risk of transmitting viral infections that can be potentially lethal for transplant recipients,” states Dr. Kitts. “Routinely, umbilical cord blood is usually discarded as medical waste following the delivery of the baby. However, if donated to a public cord blood bank, it could help save a patient’s life.”

The lives saved could be like those of Alysha Dykstra. “If Alysha had not received her cord blood stem cell transplant, we might very well be at a very different place today,” says her mother Karen.

Detailed information about umbilical cord collection hospitals is available at blood.ca/cordblood.

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