Article - Anthony Nolan

A constituent wrote to me recently about blood.

Being of a somewhat squeamish disposition, I find this a difficult topic to discuss. But the enquiry was a serious one - as it was about blood cancer which remains as a serious killer.

Several decades ago, a colleague with whom I was then working closely developed such a cancer. I remember visiting him in hospital at what must have been close to the low point, just before his blood was replaced with blood from a relative who nobly provided some of his own.

The story had a happy ending, because my colleague was still around, functioning normally, many years later. It always seemed to me little short of miraculous that the body could be persuaded to accept a substitute for what is, after all, the most fundamental transmission mechanism of the respiratory system that provides us with the oxygen of life. But I assume that the close relationship between donor and recipient had provided a serendipitous matching of the genetic structures in a way that permitted acceptance rather than rejection of the foreign cells.

The point of my constituent's correspondence was to draw my attention to the work of Anthony Nolan, a charity that supports the NHS when it treats patients requiring such blood replacement.

I recently once again met representatives of this remarkable organisation about whom I have written previously in this column and was reminded just how impressive its contribution is.

Rather than relying solely on close relatives, Anthony Nolan has gradually and painstakingly established a register containing genetic data for the blood of hundreds of thousands of volunteers who have come forward to the charity, had their genes tested and committed to provide blood or bone marrow from which stem cells can be extracted to enable the NHS to perform the miracle of replacement at high speed when the lives of patients with blood cancer and other life threatening conditions depend on it.

The power of this national database run by the charity here in the UK is multiplied many times over by the use of modern communications technology to enable full exchange of information with similar databases in other countries, thereby providing access to a vastly greater array of genetic structures with a correspondingly higher chance of providing a close enough match for a particular patient.

All of this is based ultimately on the willingness of volunteers between the ages of 16 and 30 to join the register and to make an advance commitment to donate when lives are at stake. I hope that anyone reading this column who is either aged between 16 and 30 themselves and is willing to join the register or knows of someone of the relevant age who might be willing to join the register will consider taking the necessary steps.

Anthony Nolan is to be found at https://www.anthonynolan.org