From time to time, Dr. Andrew Taylor thinks back across the decades to a critically ill girl, then 2 years old. He’s never met her and doesn’t know her name. But he may well have saved her life.
Twenty-five years ago this month, Taylor became the first Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center employee to donate bone marrow through the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry (today called the Be The Match Registry).
But his journey toward that donation began nine years earlier, when he was hit by a car in Eugene, Oregon.
In 1980, Taylor, then at the University of Oregon, was biking home, late to a home-cooked dinner by his fiancée. As he paused under a streetlight to make a left turn, a car struck him and broke his leg so severely he required surgery.
“I received two units of blood in the hospital and decided I’d better return them,” said Taylor, a staff scientist. After dutifully donating back his two units, he became a habitual blood donor. It was while he was donating blood at the Puget Sound Blood Center one day after moving to Seattle that he first learned about the registry.
Through the Be The Match Registry, healthy adults who are interested in donating marrow can be linked anonymously to unrelated, but genetically similar, patients who need transplants to cure deadly diseases like blood cancers or defects of the immune system. A transplant from just the right donor provides the recipient with stem cells that are capable of developing into healthy blood and immune cells to replace the patient’s faulty tissues. The technique was pioneered in the 1960s and ‘70s by University of Washington scientists who were looking for a new home for their groundbreaking research. Their new home became Fred Hutch, which they cofounded in 1975. Today more than a million patients around the world have received a bone marrow transplant.
Taylor decided to join the registry, so he gave the blood center a small amount of extra blood and filled out a postcard with his contact information. Then, he forgot about it. “It was clear that your chances of matching were small,” said Taylor.
So he was surprised when he got a phone call from the blood center several years later, informing him that he might be a match for a 2-year-old Midwestern girl with severe combined immunodeficiency, a rare disorder that renders the immune system defenseless against normally harmless germs.
After a consult with a Fred Hutch transplant physician and a series of additional testing, Taylor’s match was confirmed. He donated his bone marrow on June 16, 1989, at Seattle’s Virginia Mason Medical Center. (Read more about Taylor’s memories of his donation at the Puget Sound Blood Center blog.)
For Taylor, bone marrow donation offered a relatively easy opportunity for him to help someone who really needed him.
“I was glad I did it because I knew that basic science helps to understand how organisms work and hence will be ultimately beneficial to human health,” said Taylor, who has worked in the same lab in the Basic Sciences Division since 1982. “[But] it was nice to be able to do something personally to affect another person’s health.”
Taylor wasn’t the first Fred Hutch employee to donate bone marrow. That honor goes to a laboratory technician who donated in 1979 at Fred Hutch to an unrelated girl with leukemia. The parents of that girl, Laura Graves, were so inspired by the success of their daughter’s transplant that they joined with other supporters to create the national registry program. In 1987, the registry made its first match, and the subsequent transplant was also performed at Fred Hutch.
A lot has changed since Taylor donated, said Dr. Rainer Storb, longtime head of Fred Hutch’s Transplantation Biology Program. Much of that progress is thanks to Hutch researchers, who have continued to improve the procedure over the years.
For one, advancements in genetic methods for matching donors and recipients mean that “we have much greater precision and avoidance of potential mismatches” than we had in 1989, said Storb, which leads to much better results for patients. Also, had he joined the registry today, Taylor could potentially match with a much wider range of patients, thanks to Storb and his Fred Hutch colleagues who developed successful transplantation methods for the patients over age 50 who were ineligible for transplants in 1989.
Taylor, a father of two, hasn’t forgotten the little girl who received his marrow. “For a while after [my donation], the marrow donor program had a poster up showing various children who were recipients, and I picked out a 2-year-old girl from the poster who I imagined could be my recipient,” Taylor said.
He heard that she did well with his donation, but the registry lost touch of her family in the early 1990s and he hasn’t heard anything about her since. If she is alive today, she would be 27, and Taylor has one simple request for her: “Pay it forward.”
Register as a donor
You could be a match for someone whose life depends on getting a transplant. Today, most donors do not need to undergo surgery or stay at the hospital. Donors from racial or ethnic minority groups are especially needed. Join online at Be The Match.
Susan Keown is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Before joining Fred Hutch in 2014, Susan wrote about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions, including the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.