At any given moment, roughly 3,000 individuals
nationwide seek a lifesaving marrow donation from someone
who is not a blood relation. However, due to the lack of
compatible donors, only 20 percent to 30 percent of this
group will ever receive a transplant.
Allen Chen, assistant professor of pediatric
oncology at the School of Medicine and director of
pediatric bone marrow transplantation at The Johns Hopkins
Hospital, says that finding a suitable donor is often a
matter of life and death — and involves a sizable
measure of luck.
"[Marrow transplantation] really is a second chance
for many patients who otherwise have incurable diseases,"
Chen says. The donation of healthy marrow can cure many
diseases, he says, including leukemia, lymphoma and
On behalf of patients in search of this lifesaving
match, one Johns Hopkins student group is doing its part to
boost the odds of success.
Since 2000, Type for Life has organized an annual
marrow registration drive on the Johns Hopkins medical
campus and in the East Baltimore community. The group's
mission is to expand and diversify the National Marrow
Donor Program Registry and give those in need a better
chance of finding a donor. In the case of leukemia
patients, for example, 70 percent need to find a suitably
matched marrow donor outside their families.
To date, the group has added 2,518 names to the
The annual drive — organized by students at the
schools of Medicine, Nursing and Public Health —
provides free and convenient registration with the National
Marrow Donor Program. To cover the medical costs of the
weeklong campaign, the group mounts an extensive
fund-raising effort each year.
Type for Life's fifth annual marrow registration drive
will take place March 8 to 12 at various locations on the
East Baltimore campus [see below].
Chen, who has been Type for Life's faculty sponsor
since its inception, says the work of these student
volunteers has been both admirable and incalculable in its
"These students put forth a tremendous effort year to
year," he says. "They have recruited 500 to around 700
people each year, and have done a particularly good job of
recruiting minority donors, of which there is the greatest
Rachel Brennan, co-chair of Type for Life, says that
the group was founded because students saw firsthand the
pressing need for marrow donors and wanted to do their
"So many patients come through the hospital in need of
a transplant, and [before Type for Life] there was no drive
at all," says Brennan, a medical student. "The group's
founders knew there was a donor need on the national level
and that every person added to the registry would help."
Brennan, now in her third year with Type for Life,
says that the response has outweighed expectations.
Registration, which typically takes 20 minutes,
involves a short health questionnaire and a finger stick to
obtain a drop of blood. The sample, drawn by Johns Hopkins
phlebotomists, is then used for a blood test called a
tissue type, a profile of six different transplant genetic
elements known as human leukocyte antigens.
Brennan says that due to the immense number of antigen
variations, an equally huge database of tissue types is
needed to find a suitable bone marrow or stem cell
Of the 2,518 individuals the group has added to the
national registry, for example, only 27 have been found to
be suitable matches; of these, three have gone through with
A person's tissue type is entered anonymously into a
national database that is searched daily on behalf of the
thousands of patients needing a marrow transplant. If the
type closely enough matches a patient's type, he or she may
be contacted and asked to donate either bone marrow or stem
cells. For marrow donation, part of a person's marrow is
extracted from the back of the pelvic bone; stem cells are
obtained through a blood donation procedure.
Brennan says there are two common misconceptions about
Type for Life: that people donate marrow at the drives, and
that by registering, one is obligated to donate.
"There really is no contract here. It is completely
understandable that if a person is later asked [to donate]
that they say at this time they cannot go through with the
donation, whether because of their own health, life stress
or some other reason," she says. "However, it is important
that volunteers who sign up for the registry do so with the
intent of donating."
Brennan says that more than one person is typically
contacted when a match is made.
While registration is free to participants, the actual
cost to Type for Life is $65 per person, in addition to
various administrative expenses. To keep the drives going,
the group mounts a fund-raising effort each year to secure
the minimum $25,000 needed. Brennan says that the money has
come from Johns Hopkins academic departments, the Alumni
Association, personal donations and organizational
The goal for the 2004 drive is to add another 700
names to the national registry, at least 30 percent of them
"The need for [registrants] is huge, but the need is
even greater for minorities because each group has a
different allele pool," Brennan says. "This is all about
potentially saving a life. Even if you're not sure whether
or not you want to donate, people are more than welcome to
come down to one of the drive locations and find out