The National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) maintains a registry of all the potential bone marrow donors in the U.S. Registering to become a potential bone marrow donor is easy. Just sign up online or at your local blood donation center. They will take a cheek swab to get a sample of your DNA to determine your human leukocyte antigen (HLA) profile and add you to the registry. It’s that easy. Later if you are found to match a patient, you will be asked to undergo a more thorough examination prior to being accepted.

Finding a match

Matching for a bone marrow transplant is more difficult than matching for a kidney transplant. Tissue matching for kidney transplants requires that the patient not have blood type or HLA antibodies for the donor kidney. Most patients have low levels of HLA antibodies, so the chances finding a match are high enough that friends can often donate to them.

Tissue matching for bone marrow is much tougher. It isn’t enough for the patient not carry antibodies for the donor’s bone marrow. The donor and the patient must be exact matches for blood type and HLA profile. The chance of matching with a family member are about 10%. But the chance of matching someone who is not related are less than one-in-100,000, or even lower for minority groups that have less common HLA combinations.

The difficulty of finding a match was not known at the time the registry was created. An excellent story about the discovery of the match difficulty was published in the New York Times Apr 1989.

Encouraging more minorities to participate

Students at many universities now run campaigns to recruit minorities to register to become potential donors. For instance at Dartmouth, Stillman, Univ. ArizonaUniv. San Francisco, and other campuses nationwide. Vivek Kumar, a software developer in the Bay Area, has led several of these drives and is featured in the video below.


Video from ABC7

Matching software

In a Nov 2010 press release, IBM has announced that NMDP has adopted IBM’s business process management (BPM) software to help automate the matching process.

The NMDP operates a registry of 8 million potential donors. It also cooperates with international registries to access to a total of 14 million potential donors worldwide.

By adding BPM software, the NMDP can take advantage of advanced analytics, social networking and reporting to streamline the record matching process by creating a online dashboard that hospital staff can use to track patients, potential donors, and the results of potential matches by geographic location.

IBM and NMDP hope the new software will lead to faster matches, which hopefully will lead to faster bone marrow transplants and improved medical outcomes for patients.