Genetic Twins Can Hold Big Surprises
Did you know that more than 900,000 people all over the world fall ill of blood cancer each year? In Germany alone, someone is diagnosed with blood cancer every 16 minutes. For many patients, the only chance for a cure is the transplantation of healthy stem cells from a matching donor. How does that work? Usually, stem cells are removed from the bloodstream during a non-surgical procedure. For stem cell transplantation, it does not come down to matching blood types, but to finding the most precise match of tissue characteristics between the donor and the patient.
Needle in a haystack
This sounds easier than it actually is. Only one third of patients find a stem cell donor in their own family. This means that the majority of them require an unrelated donor. The probability of finding a suitable person outside of one’s own family is very complicated and therefore often compared to the proverbial search for a needle in a haystack.
“Together with my wife, I registered as a donor in 2011,” says Harald Lock, FedEx station manager from Hamburg, Germany. “There was a tissue typing at a school nearby our home and we felt it would be time worth spent to stop by.” Three years later, Harald was informed by the German Bone Marrow Donor Center (DKMS) that a person suffering from blood cancer appeared to be his genetic ‘twin’ and his cells could help to heal. “Knowing how difficult it is to find a suitable donor, this was a very exciting moment for me,” he recalls.
The donation did not hurt at all
During the following weeks, Harald had to pass medical checks and then travelled to Cologne where the donation took place. “I was more than impressed how well organized the whole process was. Not only had DKMS arranged all the doctor´s appointments for me, they also sent me short messages on my mobile the day before to remind me of my appointments.” The donation itself took three and a half hours and didn´t hurt at all. “When my stem cells were separated, a courier was already waiting next door. The bag with the cells was handed over and the courier rushed towards the airport where everything was arranged to ensure a seamless onward journey to the recipient.”
Harald felt strong enough to go back to work after only three days. Of course, the critical part is the recipient. The Bone Marrow Donor Center receives information about the patient´s state of health from the transplantation clinic three months after the donation – and then passes it on to the donor. “Just recently, I learned that the body of the patient seems to have accepted my stem cells. This is the best news I could hope for,” says Harald.
Genetic twins… with big differences
While donor and recipient may meet each other in person after a certain time if they both live in Germany, different regulations apply for donations into other countries. Some are more liberal, whereas others do not allow any contact at all. In Harald´s case, the recipient lives outside of Germany and, due to legal regulations, the two have the chance to only exchange three basic data: their sex, age, and home country.
“Can you imagine? I learned that my genetic twin seems to be the exact opposite of me: It´s a 25-year-old woman from Spain!” Harald wonders. Considering that he´s 6’5″tall and light blonde, this indeed sounds surprising.
With the stem cell donation, the recipient takes the blood group of the donor together with the stem cells. So it´s not impossible that the Spanish woman’s hair will start growing in Harald´s light blonde color. “Although we´re not officially allowed to touch base, signs like this may perhaps bring us together one day. You never know what can happen,” Harald smiles. “But no matter if we will ever meet or not, from the bottom of my heart, I wish her all the best.”