While stem cell use is increasingly well-understood in labs and lecture halls, talk of the undifferentiated cells is far less prevalent elsewhere on campus. Considering the average age of university students overlaps closely with the ideal age of stem cell donors, the Brock Stem Cell Club seeks to change this.
The club held a stem cell drive on Thursday in Guernsey Market swabbing students to add them to the stem cell donor database and raising awareness about stem cell donation.
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that can turn into specific cells as the body needs them. People with diseases or disorders that inhibit their ability to produce these kinds of cells, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, need a transplant of healthy stem cells from a donor. Many people have heard of stem cells through the controversial embryonic stem cell donation process where stem cells are taken from embryos. However, stem cells can also be taken from adult cells via the blood or bone marrow with minimally invasive and typically pain-free procedures. The Brock Stem Cell Club and their head organization, Canadian Blood Services, are interested in the matching of compatible individuals and the donation of blood stem cells.
“The Brock Stem Cell Club is a club on campus that runs Stem Cell Drives. There are many chapters of the Stem Cell club on university campuses all across Ontario. The Stem Cell chapters are a kind of subdivision of Canadian Blood Services, however stem cells have their own OneMatch database. Once a person registers in the database, they could be found to be a stem cell match for someone who needs them,” said Meghan Hickey, president of the Stem Cell Club at Brock. “We run four events during the academic year and two per semester. Our stem cell drives take place in Guernsey Market, and run from 10:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. All we do on campus is get participants to sign a registration form and do a quick cheek swab — it only takes 10 minutes to potentially save someone’s life.”
Stem cell donation is important especially to Canadians as there are about 1,400 people in Canada right now who need stem cell donation as a result of ailments such as leukaemia, spinal cord injuries and blood disorders. Hickey seeks to involve as many informed Brock students in stem cell donation as possible.
“Stem cell donation is insanely rare, much more so than blood donation. We all have one of four blood types; however, stem cells aren’t that cut and dry. There are multiple genetic markers that must be met in order to be someone’s stem cell donor, and in most cases, people need a person of the same ethnicity to be a stem cell match. There are so many people waiting on stem cells with diverse backgrounds, and not enough diversity on the OneMatch database for stem cell donors, which is something that we’re trying to change as a chapter of the Stem Cell Club,” said Hickey. “Another big group at risk is Indigenous peoples, who are limited to peoples within their own specific groups. There is also the fact that male stem cells are more sought out for, because they are known to have less side effects for recipients after they are donated. We are working hard to recruit more informed potential stem cell donors to up the numbers, and ultimately save lives.”
Many Brock students participate and get swabbed in the drives each semester and several join the club as volunteers.
“I’ve been happy with the turn out from the drives so far, however I would love to see the numbers keep growing. I think that making people aware of the need and ensuring that they are informed in their decision to become a donor is a huge factor in bringing people into our drives. I am so grateful that we have so many passionate and knowledgeable volunteers — we couldn’t do it without them,” said Hickey. “You can take a few minutes out of your day, that can affect someone’s whole life. That seems like quite a low-risk, high-reward set up to me.”
Students who are interested in joining the club can sign up as a member at any of the drives, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. There are no general meetings, just a promise to commit whatever time you can to help run one of the upcoming drives. Prior to volunteering at the drive, a new member will attend an hour training session, and fill out a training module and confidentiality form online.
Those who missed the drive can still register and get swabbed at the local Canadian Blood Services clinic, which is on 395-397 Ontario Street, St. Catharines.