Why diversity is essential to the national bone marrow donor pool

April 02

DKMS Life Science Lab

It’s a fact. Minorities have more difficulty finding matching bone marrow or blood stem cell donors because of the lack of participation by minorities to join the donor pool. 


For many patients who are suffering from a blood cancer or blood disorder (like leukemia, lymphoma or sickle cell disease), a bone marrow or blood stem cell transplant is often the only hope of beating the disease.  In 30 % of cases, a familial matching donor may be an option. However, for the other 70 %, these patients need to find an unrelated match. 

HLA markers are a major part in determining a lifesaving match. Photo Credit: Stanford University

When a patient’s doctor starts the search for a matching bone marrow donor, they will generally look at 10 specific  human leukocyte antigen (HLA) markers to determine a match. Most require at least a 9 out of 10 match, but a 10 out of 10 is best. The closer the match, the better the chance that the patient’s immune system will recognize the donated cells as its own and allow them to grow and make new healthy blood cells. 


What does this mean for people of color and other minorities?

Nalin is a 23-year-old patient who is currently fighting leukemia. Nalin needs a matching bone marrow donor, due to her mixed heritage it will be harder for her to find her lifesaving match.

When it comes to matching HLA types, a patient’s ethnic background is important in predicting the likelihood of finding a match. This is because HLA markers used in matching are inherited. Some ethnic groups have more complex tissue types than others. So a person’s best chance of finding a donor may be with someone of the same ethnic background. It is very hard for patients to find a matching bone marrow donor, and for a patient of color, it is even more difficult due to the lack of diversity on the bone marrow registry.


Ethnic minorities are sadly underrepresented in the national bone marrow donor pool. These groups across the board face challenges in finding their lifesaving matches. 


What if no match is found?

If no match is found in the global donor pool, that doesn’t mean a match doesn’t exist. It just means that the person who could be a match is just not registered yet. A perfect match could still be out there. For this reason, many families partner with DKMS to host bone marrow donor drives in hopes of finding their second chance. 



What can I do to help? 


Spread the word



Volunteers at UAMS - University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

DKMS is an international nonprofit dedicated to helping patients find their lifesaving bone marrow donor to treat their blood cancer or disorder. The more people who know about the demand for bone marrow donors, the better the chances are for the patients who need them.



Host a virtual donor drive

Get your family and friends involved. Although we’re not facilitating any physical drives (due to COVID-19), you can set up your own virtual donor drive.