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3,000 people per day need marrow match

The registry of willing bone marrow donors at the Inland Northwest Blood Center in Spokane holds 17,300 names, but not one is a match for 11-year-old Rochelle Normandeau of Polson.

Number 17,301 just might be the one. And that one might walk through the doors of Southgate Mall on Saturday and help Normandeau beat leukemia. Or help someone else with one of the 60 or so diseases that can be cured by a bone marrow transplant.

"On any given day," said marrow program supervisor Laura Oiland, "3,000 people are looking for a match."

Oiland and her staff hold drives throughout their region of eastern Washington, northern Idaho, Montana and the northwestern corner of Wyoming. The past two years, the blood center has held drives at Southgate Mall in conjunction with the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce-sponsored spring health fair. The last two years' drives were inspired by Billings teen-ager Bryan Becker, who has chronic myelogenous leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant. While drives aren't held for specific people, organizers often have an area resident in mind when they hold one.

In the region's 14 matches of the last two years, seven have been from Montana.

Marrow is found inside the body's bones. It looks like blood and produces the body's blood components - white and red blood cells and platelets - that are the main agents of the body's immune system. Any disease that attacks the marrow, causing it to stop producing the correct amounts of the various blood cells, threatens the body's ability to defend itself. New marrow gives the body a second chance.

To find marrow donor matches, medical science determines tissue type by looking at six markers that are among the hundreds of codes in human blood cells. More than 19,000 combinations are known. Chances are 1-in-4 that a match will be found in a family member. Chances overall of finding a donor are 83 percent, but unusual or unexpected heritage can complicate the search.

For instance, Bryan Becker's cells contain a type of marker, called an antigen, usually found in people of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage, even though his family is white American Westerners. Rochelle Normandeau's heritage is half American Indian and half Scandinavian.

"It's a combination that's making it really hard for her to find a match," Oiland said.

Oiland and the blood center staff will talk to potential donors about a new process for donating. Peripheral blood stem cell collection is less invasive and less uncomfortable than the older collection method, still in use, which involved extracting bone marrow through a needle inserted in the donor's hip bone.

In the new method, the donor is given a drug that's a synthetic growth hormone identical to one produced in the body for four or five days by injection. It multiplies the body's stem cells, which are the cells that produce red and white blood cells and platelets. Then the donor flies to Spokane or Seattle, expenses paid for the donor and a companion, and gives blood through a needle in the arm for about four hours. The only known side effects have been achy sensations for two or three days and sometimes headaches.

"It's like giving a platelet donation, only longer," Oiland said.

The process has been used for about 10 years in people giving their own marrow.

"We expect eventually to switch to it completely," Oiland said. "We really feel it's a much nicer process."

Potential donors must be between the ages of 18 and 60, in good health and not substantially overweight. The initial test requires simple blood drawing. Organizers hope for a turnout of 250.

"It takes literally millions to find matches for everybody," Oiland said.

If you're interested

The Inland Northwest Blood Center and Southgate Mall will hold a bone marrow drive on Saturday, April 29, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in JC Penney Court at the mall. They are looking for a donor for a bone marrow transplant for 11-year-old leukemia patient Rochelle Normandeau of Polson and 3,000 others who are waiting for a match. Testing will cost potential donors $21; the Montana Association of Highway Patrolmen's Hope Project will contribute a $2,000 matching grant to help potential donors who can't pay for testing. People whose descent is any percentage African-American, Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino, American Indian or Alaska native will be typed free of charge. To contribute money for testing, donate at the drive or send it to Account No. 714, National Marrow Donor Program, 3433 Broadway NE, Suite 500, Minneapolis, Minn. 55413 or to Montana Hope Project, Montana Association of Highway Patrolmen, P.O. Box 5927, Helena, Mont. 59604.

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