Why race matter in transplants cellular therapies

Asking about a person’s race and/or ethnicity is a touchy topic in today’s world, yet these questions are routinely asked of both patients and potential stem cell donors. And many people wonder why.

The simple answer is that decades of research have shown that donor-patient matching using race and ethnicity information results in better transplant outcomes.

But that race and ethnicity information is not simply a matter of skin color. In transplantation, this in-formation is used to get a sense of what’s underneath skin color, and that’s a person’s human leuko-cyte antigens (HLA).

“The reason why ethnicity comes into the picture,” says Dr. Abeer Madbouly, a senior scientist at Be The Match, “is that HLA encodes the immune system, and the immune system goes through particular conditions based on where you are.”

In other words, populations in different parts of the world will develop particular sets of HLA types. For example, individuals living in Africa who share a darker skin color are also likely to share common HLA types.

Asking both patients and potential donors about race is therefore a way to get a hint at what common HLA types they may share.

Dr. Madbouly was quoted in a recent New York Times article, The Intersection of Race and Blood, which outlines the biological reasons why blood and bone marrow can be racially or ethnically specific.

Finding a matched donor becomes more challenging for a patient with a mixed ethnic background. Having more stem cell donors in certain groups under represented on the Be The Match Registry® can be crucial for saving the lives of patients who share their background. 

The National Marrow Donor Program/Be The Match acknowledges these differences in blood and seeks to grow the Be The Match Registry to serve all people in need of a life-saving transplant.