About 2,500 people suffering from aggressive blood cancers and other hematological diseases seek stem cell transplants in the Kingdom every year as it is their only hope for cure.
According to experts, the current number of such surgeries however ranges from 400 to 500 transplants annually, leaving thousands without the life-saving treatment they are in desperate need of.
A stem cell transplant, sometimes called a bone marrow transplant, is a surgical procedure in which diseased bone marrow is replaced by highly specialized stem cells that develop into healthy bone marrow.
Described as the miracle cure of the future, stem cell transplants have the potential to successfully treat numerous diseases and these include blood cancers and sickle cell anemia.
Over the past 30 years, around 4,000 stem cell transplants have been performed in the Kingdom and the doctors performing these cutting edge surgeries spoke to Al-Riyadh daily about the importance of increasing the number of stem cell donors in order to meet the needs of patients.
Dr. Ahmad Al-Askar, a hematology and stem cell transplant consultant at King Abdullah Global Center for Medical Research, said the Kingdom was the first to compile a list of stem cell donors in the Arab region. The list has full information about donors who are ready to donate stem cells to patients.
“We aim to consolidate donor lists for all regions and we are going to sign a number of agreements with hospitals in Dammam, Qassim and Jeddah for this purpose. These lists will be linked with the International Stem Cell Donor List, which currently has 25 million donors. This means that anyone who searches for a donor in the Saudi list will also be able to see the international list,” he explained.
Numerous studies conducted on stem cell donors have shown no major negative effects on donors. Minor symptoms some donors experience can be likened to those suffered by blood donors. Donors sometimes have to take pills to make up for iron deficiency in their body.
The success of a stem cell transplant depends on various factors such as the nature of the disease and the patient’s age but the success rate is between 60 and 70 percent. It reaches 90 percent in patients who suffer from hereditary blood diseases.
Dr. Ali Hujair, who is in charge of the Saudi donor list, noted that finding a matching donor for a child from his immediate family is usually difficult but the chances increase if the patient is an adult.
The difference between blood donation and stem cell donation is that that former is done by taking blood directly from the veins while the latter is done by a surgery during which stem cells are taken from the donor’s bone marrow. For the latter, the patient needs to undergo general anesthesia and is also given various intravenous injections three days before the operation, which takes three to four hours.
“If we have a Saudi patient who needs a stem cell transplant, the first thing we will do is to check if any of their family members can be a good candidate for the donation. If there is no matching donor in the family, we will check the list of donors in the region where the patient lives. If we do not find anyone, we will check the international list of donors,” he explained.
Dr. Mohsin Al-Zahrani, a hematology and stem cell consultant, said the Saudi list of stem cell donors is growing and people are encouraged by the fact that donating stem cells has little side effects.
“We are planning to encourage 20,000 donors all over the Kingdom to sign up. We will also participate in global conferences on the future of stem cell transplants in order to improve our capabilities,” he said while adding there are four stem cell transplant centers in the Kingdom with more to follow suit in the near future.