MDRI’s Stem Cell Donation Drive at IIT Bombay

In association with an NGO called Marrow Donor Registry of India (MDRI), a stem-cell donation drive was organised in the KreSiT building from the 23rd to the 25th of September, which saw over 700 IITB-ians turn up to register themselves in the donor database.

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The Marrow Donor Registry of India (MDRI) was set up in 2002. Initially, they were unable to conduct a large number of drives could due to a dearth of funds, since the average cost MDRI bears per donor is around Rs. 8000. They had approached the government for financial support, but were told to concentrate on diseases like typhoid and malaria as cancer was not as huge a concern in India. The project then got funded by Mr. Ratan Tata. It’s a TATA initiative, under the chairmanship of Dr. Sunil Parekh. Donors began to get enrolled only by 2009. Today, their database is 20,000 strong.

It is no more about a huge syringe inserted into the spine or some painful procedure, it is very similar to blood donation.

“Technology and times have changed. Help us bust the myth about the process! It is no more about a huge syringe inserted into the spine or some painful procedure, it is very similar to blood donation. It is still confused with organ donation and there is very little awareness about the process”, said an organiser at the event.

Dr. Praveen Clement, who was also present, added “We take peripheral blood. It is pumped to a stem cell harvester where the stem cells are removed. The blood is then pumped back into the donor’s body. 5 days prior to donation, the donor is given a subcutaneous injection so that stem cells are moved from the marrow into the blood. There are 16 principal characteristics that need to be matched. We take samples and record the characteristics in our database since stem-cells cannot be stored. The probability of finding a suitable donor is very low – about 1 in 10,000.

It’s like taking a bucket of water from the ocean. My youngest donor is a one-year old child.

We’re just taking a blood sample right now. If the donor’s sample matches, we call them up and then take out the stem cells. You never know when you might get lucky and get a chance to actually save a life. People stay on the database for 20-30 years and never get called.” We further asked him if the donor was taking any potential risk by getting enrolled. He mentioned that many donors had this concern and he had told them all the same thing – “It’s like taking a bucket of water from the ocean. My youngest donor is a one-year old child.”


A professor from IIT-B who suffered from leukaemia (blood cancer) backed the organisers. He was very lucky and his brother’s sample matched with his, since stem-cell transplant is the only way blood cancer can be cured. His wife told us that in the US, it’s no big deal. When 16 year-olds apply for their driving licenses, they register themselves with the Marrow Donor Registry. They do not need to ask their parents, they have more than 20 million people enrolled! The patient gets to interact with 3-4 potential donors and he actually has a choice.

The process, however, does require an unfailing commitment from the donor. “You know, you cannot make lame excuses like you’re busy or out of town or something like that when there’s a life at stake. To ensure that the donors understand what they’re signing up for, we conduct drives only in educational institutions and corporate houses. Even so, a 40 year donor recently backed out at the last moment just because HIS parents asked him to”, she said. Dr. Clement added, “We do respect the parents’ opinion as well. But we ask the donors to at least give us a chance to explain to their parents once about the new procedures.”

The donors too, seemed enthralled at the prospect of “getting lucky”. When asked about what drove them to register themselves, two freshmen said, “A friend of ours told us about this. We saw no harm. Since the probability of matching the 16 characteristics is so low, about 1 in 10,000, you never know at what point of time you can help save a life. You feel like a Super-Hero!”