Leukaemia patient awaits stem cells

Nandita Jayaraj
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45-year-old Karthik Shankaran now has two months to undergo a stem cell transplant

Former MNC employee Karthik Shankaran was diagnosed with leukaemia in January 2011.

By December that year, it seemed as if timely treatment had gotten rid of it, but a couple of weeks ago, he found his cancer had relapsed.

Forty-five-year-old Karthik now has two months to undergo a stem cell transplant, his most viable shot at recovery.

But, quite a few hurdles lie ahead. For one, Karthik is yet to find a donor.

“There is a 25 per cent chance of finding a match within the family, but there was nobody in mine. So I have to look for unrelated donors,” says Karthik. This is where stem cell registries come in.

If the registry is large enough, finding a match is quite probable. “In India however, there is no central registry. All the individual registries in the country put together probably have just about 50,000 samples,” says Karthik.

In an ethnically diverse country like India, this is a very small number. As it turns out, Karthik was not able to find a match in the registries either.

This prompted Karthik and his wife Divya Mohan, a technical writer, to start Swab4Karthik.

Swab4Karthik is a website that emphasises the role of potential stem cell donors in helping patients of leukaemia.

Stem cells can be extracted from several parts of our body — bone marrow, blood and cord blood. However, most of the stem cell transplants carried out today use peripheral blood, according to Raghu Rajagopal, co-founder and CEO of Datri, a stem cell registry.

(Peripheral blood is the circulating blood of the body. It is different from the blood that flows within the liver, bone marrow or the lymphatic system.)

“Peripheral blood is a far more preferred source of stem cells for transplants in case of malignant conditions,” says Dr. Revathy Raj, oncologist at Apollo Hospitals. This is because peripheral blood has a high count of T-lymphocytes, a key immune cell that helps a patient’s blood count recover faster after transplant, she says.

For a donor, it is almost as easy and only as painful as blood donation, but for a recipient it’s not that simple. Unlike with blood, there’s more to worry about than just A, B, AB and O groups.

Stem cells have 10 markers on them, and for a donor to be compatible, he or she must ideally carry the same 10 markers as the recipient. Otherwise the body rejects the donor cells.

To donate, one needs to register with a peripheral blood stem cell registry like Datri which, according to Mr. Rajagopal, is India’s largest.

The registry will store details of cell type and contact potential donors if they are found to be a match. The chances may be slim but the bigger the registry gets, the better the chances for patients in urgent need of a stem cell transplant.

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