When Vansh was born, his parents were little aware of any abnormality in his health, until he was around three months old. “He would look weak and fatigued, his face started turning a little yellowish. The doctor revealed the most heartbreaking news to us – my son was a patient of thalassemia major,” shares Bimla, Vansh’s mother.
His parents soon realised that their son’s genetic disorder has no assured cure. He has to undergo weekly blood transfusions, if not more frequently. “I was so scared. How will my little child put up with such a painstaking process?” recalls Satish, Vansh’s father.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
Gradually, the procedure became an integral part of Vansh’s life as he reached his teenage years. He underwent blood transfusions for eight prolonged years. With every passing session, his hope of being cured would dwindle a little more. Yet, little did Vansh and his family know that a miracle awaits them. That Harshil, a stranger from a distant England, would save their son’s life was beyond their imagination.
Stem Cell Donation: Most Effective Cure
Vansh is one of the very few recipients of stem cell transplant in India, perhaps the most effective cure to blood-related disorders like thalassemia, leukaemia, sickle cell anaemia etc. His stem cell donor Harshil hails from England where he had registered with DKMS – an international non-profit organisation with a stem cell donor base of over 9.25 million people, dedicated to offering a second chance at life to patients with blood disorders. So far, DKMS has saved the lives of over 78,000 blood disorder patients worldwide.
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In April 2019, DKMS partnered with Bengaluru-based BMST (Bangalore Medical Services Trust) and started its operations in India. Over the years, BMST has emerged as the most trusted blood banking service in Bengaluru, if not the whole of Karnataka. Talking to Efforts For Good, DKMS-BMST CEO Patrick Paul reveals the main reason behind their expansion to India.
Need For A Stem Cell Database In India
“India has an enormous population, with a substantial percentage of children affected by blood disorders, mostly thalassemia. However, most of these children have little access to proper treatment due to lack of awareness. Stem cell transplant from a matching donor has the potential to cure thalassemia or leukaemia completely,” Patrick explains.
Till date, patients’ families in India would have had to get the transplant from donors from abroad, although the probability is higher for them to find a donor among fellow Indians.
, although the probability is higher for them to find a donor among fellow Indians. “So, DKMS wanted to create an extensive stem cell donor database in India and raise mass awareness about this concept,” adds Patrick.
Today, 33,046 people from across India have enlisted themselves as stem cell donors with DKMS-BMST and 16 of them got the chance to provide a second chance at life to patients in need, including both children and adults. Cricket maestro Rahul Dravid is also in full support of the cause.
How Stem Cell Transplant Offers A Magical Cure
Most Indians are still unaware of the existence of stem cell treatment while only a few of us have a vague idea about it.
Patrick describes the basic system, “The Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) gene complex in human chromosome is responsible for all functions of the immune system. Now, this specific gene system is very flexible. Any slight anomaly in any of the genes can result in major blood disorders like leukaemia, thalassemia, aplastic anaemia etc.”
“This gene complex originates in the stem cells of human bone marrow. If stem cells from a donor with similar genetic set-up are transplanted into an affected individual, it will replace his diseased stem cells. New stem cells transcend into the patient’s bone marrow and create a whole new blood system. That’s how the blood disorders can be cured,” he continues to explain.
Finding the perfect matching donor is quite difficult. The DKMS-BMST database will aid to make that task easier. “Since India is a land of multiple ethnicities and genealogical identities, a comprehensive database is more necessary than anywhere else in the world,” remarks Patrick.
Experience Of A Stem Cell Donor
Manish, a Mumbai resident had casually registered with DKMS-BMST as a stem cell donor. He realised the true worth of his action when he got a call about being a potential match for an ailing patient. “That’s when I realised that my small step can give someone another shot at life,” he exclaims.
He had received immense support from his family who believes the greatest service any human being can perform is to save another person’s life. “If that can be done by an effort as simple as being a stem cell donor, then I implore every individual to opt for it,” asserts Anup, Manish’s father.
As a donor, Manish has a crucial request for all other willing donors. “Once you have promised to go ahead with the process, do not back out. You will be taking away someone’s only hope of living again,” he urges.
“It’s In Your Blood”
The above phrase features as the slogan of DKMS-BMST to reach out to more potential donors. “Finding a genetic twin of a person in India is like looking for a needle in a haystack. We are trying our very best to make that task easier. You can be someone’s saviour too,” Patrick urges all the readers.
When a matching donor saves a patient’s life, it ends up forging a strong bond of brotherhood through blood. “Till now, all the donors have become an integral part of their respective patient’s family,” Patrick emphasises.
Thalassemia Awareness In India
DKMS-BMST is trying to popularise the breakthrough concept of stem cell transplant in India, to combat rising cases of blood disorders among newborns. At the same time, people must be sensitised that a simple blood test before marriage or pregnancy can prevent the occurrence of genetic conditions like thalassemia in children.
Thalassemia is a genetic blood disorder which manifests itself in a child if both parents are carriers of a particular genetic anomaly in their HLA system. A simple blood test can diagnose the same and warn potential parents before they conceive, and thus save a newborn’s life.
Widespread awareness needs to be generated about both prevention and cure of thalassemia. Only then the society can offer a new ray of hope to thousands of helpless children.
If women around the world are having a much safer pregnancy with minimal complications, they have an English woman to thank. 19th Century haematologist Lucy Wills’ research pinpointed the importance of folic acid during pregnancy, which is the key to prevent prenatal anaemia and eliminate the danger of child mortality. At present, pregnant women all over the world are mandated to take folic acid supplements throughout their pregnancy.
Lucy’s early life
Lucy Wills was born on May 10, 1888, near Birmingham, United Kingdom to William Leonard Wills and Gertrude Wills. Her father was a science graduate and the family had always shown a strong inclination towards science. Lucy completed her education from three ace colleges of contemporary times, finally graduating from the London School of Medicine for Women – the first British school for training women doctors, stated The Hindu.
Interestingly, Lucy Wills has a close connection with India. A considerable part of her groundbreaking research was conducted in Mumbai, India (erstwhile Bombay).
Arrival and research in Bombay
A fresh graduate, Lucy decided to pursue medical research rather than practising as a physician. In 1928, Lucy arrived in India and joined the Maternal Mortality Inquiry at the Haffkine Institute in Bombay.
At that time, macrocytic anaemia was a common ailment during pregnancy among the working class women in textile factories of Bombay. Especially, the women from lesser privileged communities were the worst affected. Macrocytic anaemia results from abnormal enlargement of red blood cells during pregnancy, drastically reducing the proportion of haemoglobin in the blood.
While working in close quarters with these women, Lucy monitored their dietary habits. After extensive research, she identified a nutritional factor whose deficiency is responsible for causing anaemia during pregnancy. Uncertain about its nature and properties, the factor was designated as ‘Wills Factor’ upon her name.
‘Wills Factor’ identified as Folic Acid
During this time, Lucy performed laboratory experiments on rats and monkeys who were nourished on the popular breakfast spread Marmite, with added yeast extract. Thereafter, Lucy concluded that this type of anaemia can be prevented by yeast extracts.
Lucy conducted further research at Pasteur Institute of India in Coonoor and the Caste and Gosha Hospital in Madras, before returning to the UK to continue the same. Later research revealed the ‘Wills Factor’ as folic acid, which is a crucial element for pregnant women to combat anaemia, alongside Vitamin B12 and iron, reported The Independent.
Later life work among underprivileged communities
Lucy Willis herself stayed unmarried all her life, but she was the saviour for millions of expecting mothers all over the world. Till her demise in 1964, she was involved in a lot of research in the field of pregnancy health and nutrition. In her later life, she travelled extensively across developing nations, addressing the issues of pregnant mothers in lesser privileged communities.
Today’s Google Doodle pays a fitting tribute to this extraordinary woman, referring to her as “the pioneering medical researcher whose analysis of prenatal anaemia changed the face of preventive prenatal care for women everywhere.”