KUALA LUMPUR: Stem call therapy holds out great promise for treating blood cancer and other disorders, but the number of registered donors in Malaysia is very low, says the Health Ministry.
Its Minister Datuk Seri Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad said the Malaysian Stem Cell Registry (MSCR) which was established 19 years ago only listed 28,291 donors so far.
“With this small number in the registry, matching donors were found (only) in 16 cases, ” he said.
Among the diseases that could be cured through stem cell therapy are thalassaemia, leukaemia, bone marrow disorder, lymphoma and multiple myeloma, he added when opening the inaugural World Marrow Donor Day celebration in Malaysia at the Ampang Hospital on Thursday (Sept 19).
This year's theme is “Be the match, be a donor”.
Dr Dzulkefly noted that Asians only made up 15% of the 34 million registered stem cell donors worldwide, and the bulk of Asian donors are Chinese.
“Hence, the chances of a Chinese patient finding a matching donor in the global registry is higher compared to Malays, Indians, as well as the bumiputra in Sabah, Sarawak, and other races, ” he said.
Dr Dzulkefly noted that 70% of global stem cell donors were Caucasian, even though 88% of the global population were non-Caucasians.
He also lauded the Ampang Hospital-based Haematology Department for taking the initiative to organise the inaugural World Marrow Day celebration in Malaysia to raise awareness on the need to increase the pool of public donors to increase the chances of finding matching donors.
“Perhaps many people are not aware that stem cell donations can also be made by just donating blood, ” he said.
Dr Dzulkefly added that up till 2018, Ampang Hospital had performed 2,111 stem cell transplants.
Of the number of cases, 797 involved donors from among relatives, 53 involved matching donors from among non-relatives, 49 cases involved unmatched donors from among relatives (haplodentical), and 10 cases involved stem cells from umbilical cords.
“Most of the stem cells from matching non-relative donors were sourced from abroad, ” he said.
Dr Dzulkefly added that the government could not afford to absorb the high cost involved in sourcing and importing matching stem cells from abroad.
Therefore it was pertinent to establish a large pool of local public donors.
With the decline in the fertility rate in Malaysia since 2013, it would be increasingly difficult to find matching donors from among close relatives, he said.
He noted that only a few hospitals in Malaysia had the expertise to carry out stem cell transplants to treat blood disorders.
“Ampang Hospital is the biggest centre where 60% of stem cell transplants in the country are carried out here, ” he said.
Other hospitals that had the expertise to carry out stem cell transplant include Penang Hospital and Sultanah Aminah Hospital in Johor.