LGBTQ advocates across North America aim to boost stem cell donation by reminding community members they are welcome to give – and that gay men don’t face the same restrictions as they’ve faced, at least thus far, in donating blood.
In fact, gay men have been able to donate stem cells in the United States since 2015. That’s when National Marrow Donor Program’s Be the Match registry lifted restrictions on men who have sex with men (MSM).
Physicians say advocacy is still necessary, because LGBTQ people may assume they can’t donate or be wary of clinicians. “The LGBTQIA+ population in general has experienced a lot of issues with the medical-industrial complex in terms of discrimination and inappropriate care,” said UT Southwestern Medical Center pathologist Brian Adkins, MD, who manages the blood bank at Children’s Health in Dallas, in an interview. “There’s a weariness there that may produce some hesitancy to interact with the donation process.”
An estimated 6.8 million people give blood in the United States each year, and an estimated 9 million people are registered as potential stem cell donors. A total of 22,013 hematopoietic cell transplantation procedures were performed in 2020, according to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.
Expanding the number of LGBTQ donors, especially those born as biological males, could pay major dividends. As Dr. Adkins noted, the ideal stem cell donor is young – Be the Match says doctors generally prefer donors aged 18-35 – and male. According to a 2021 Gallup Poll, 21% of those born from 1997 to 2003 (Generation Z) say they’re LGBTQ, as do 11% of those born from 1981 to 1996 (Millennials).
In North America, the most extensive outreach to the LGBTQ community about stem cell donation has been launched in Canada. There, an organization called Stem Cell Club focuses on encouraging college students and other young people to register as potential stem cell donors.
Stem Cell Club has several campaigns aimed at ethnic minority groups, and its Saving Lives With Pride project focuses on MSM. The project’s web page includes testimonials from a woman whose life was saved by an unrelated gay male donor and from a gay male nurse who recovered from blood cancer thanks to a stem cell donation. The site also includes videos about stem cell donation featuring LGBTQ young people and Canadian hematologists.
“Our specialized collection center will treat donors with the highest levels of respect and courtesy, indeed as heroes of their unselfish gift that can truly save a life,” says Ottawa Hospital transplant hematologist David Allan, MD, in one of the videos.
Stem Cell Club was founded by transplant hematologist Warren Fingrut, MD, a research fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. In an interview, he said the organization’s LGBTQ project has promoted stem cell donation at several annual gay pride events and will continue the outreach this coming summer. In 2018 and 2019, advocates recruited 354 potential stem-cell donors (40% male, 42 non-White) at five pride events, Dr. Wingrut and colleagues reported last year in the journal Bone Marrow Transplantation.
For a new study, researchers interviewed 37 gay and bisexual men from five Canadian provinces about stem cell donation. Dr. Fingrut and colleagues reported the findings in February in an abstract at the Transplantation & Cellular Therapy Meetings.
Most participants didn’t know they “are eligible to donate stem cells, with many confusing stem cell versus blood donor eligibility criteria,” the researchers reported. According to Dr. Fingrut, some of the men “felt they were treated as second-class citizens, and that translated into frustration and decreased motivation to donate. There were concerns that they would be treated as though they shouldn’t be there.”
Canada has allowed gay men to donate stem cells for at least 10 years, Dr. Fingrut said. In 2022, Canadian officials said blood banks would no longer require MSM donors to have been abstinent from sex for 3 months, the BBC reported. However, donors will be asked about high-risk sexual behaviors.
The United States, where HIV spread through the blood supply during the early years of the AIDS pandemic and killed thousands of hemophiliacs, has much been slower to change its policies. For decades, starting in the 1980s, both blood banks and stem cell donation programs chose to lower the risk by turning away MSM donors.
Policies only began to change in recent years. Be the Match’s registry led the way by welcoming MSM in 2015. Stem cell donations go through more extensive testing than blood donations, Dr. Adkins said, so it’s more likely that HIV will be screened out. Also, he said, officials probably realized “it was necessary to widen the donor pool in order to best serve the patients” because it’s so hard to find matched stem-cell donors.
Be the Match has also stepped up its outreach to the LGBTQ community. “During Pride Month in 2022, Be The Match sponsored booths at events in 12 major markets from coast to coast,” said Jamie Margolis, senior vice president of Donor Services. “These efforts enabled us to increase awareness among more than 500,000 festival attendees and added more than 2,000 new members to the Be The Match Registry. We also produced a social media awareness campaign featuring one of our own employees, who is a cofounder of the Pride Employee Resource Group at Be The Match and a recent blood stem cell donor.”
In 2020 as blood banks became desperate for donations during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA changed its policy and required MSM to be abstinent for 3 months instead of 1 year before giving blood. (Prior to December 2014, any man who’d had sex with a man, even once, was indefinitely banned from giving blood.)
The 3-month policy instituted in 2020 drew fire from critics such as the American Medical Association, which noted the regulation treated men differently if they had unprotected sex with a single man versus with multiple women.
Now, the FDA is proposing that it once again change the policy about blood donations: It is recommending that there be no special polices regarding MSM. “All prospective donors who report having a new sexual partner or more than one sexual partner and had anal sex in the past 3 months would be deferred from donation.”
Under the proposal, anyone who’s ever had HIV will not be able to donate. (They can’t donate stem cells either.) And the FDA proposes restrictions on those who take pre-exposure prophylaxis or postexposure prophylaxis for HIV.
Margolis, of Be the Match, noted that some members of the LGBTQ community may not be able to donate to Be The Match BioTherapies, which works with cell and gene therapy developers worldwide to provide cellular starting material. “These therapies may have different requirements than those for blood stem-cell transplants. Men who have had sex with men in the past 5 years or women who have had sex with a man who has had sex with a man in the past 5 years may not be able to donate to Be The Match BioTherapies. While we understand this could be upsetting or frustrating for someone who desires to be a part of these therapies, we are committed to following medical guidelines and regulations, while also advocating for our donors and the LBGTQIA+ community as a whole.”
MSM aren’t the only target of outreach by proponents of stem cell donation. In 2019, UT Southwestern’s Dr. Adkins and colleagues wrote a commentary in Bone Marrow Transplantation that called for bone marrow donation centers to do more to be welcoming to transgender donors. “The largest age group identifying as transgender is 18-24 years of life, which overlaps considerably with the population of hematopoietic stem cell donors, which tend to be younger individuals,” the researchers wrote.
The transgender community was “simply overlooked,” Dr. Adkins said. Since then, as he pointed out, things have changed. Now, Be the Match’s website notes that “members of the LGBTQIA+ community CAN join the registry and donate.” The organization says that “for medical reasons, everyone is asked to provide their sex assigned at birth when they register. Should you be called as a match, pronouns and gender identity are respected throughout the process.”
In addition, the site says people on prescription hormone therapy are not excluded from joining the registry. Patients who have undergone surgery within the last 12 months, including sex-reassignment procedures, “will be asked about the current status of their recovery and whether they are still seeing a physician for follow-up in regards to the surgery.”
What’s next? Dr. Fingrut said he expects the lifting of strict rules about MSM and blood donation will boost stem cell donation in the community.
There seems to be plenty of room for more outreach. Cole Williams, founder of Pride & Plasma, which advocates for allowing gay men to give blood, suggested in an interview that advocates who want to increase stem cell donation in the LGBTQ community reach out to its community centers, health organizations, providers, and clinics.
So far, though, “I haven’t seen a big call for registration of any individuals unless they have a personal relation to bone marrow donation,” he said.
Dr. Fingrut and Dr. Adkins report no disclosures.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.
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