It’s because of these thousands of individuals and families facing such a challenging diagnosis that I was pleased the House was given a chance to pass, and President Joe Biden subsequently signed into law, the Transplant Act. The Transplant Act reauthorizes the C.W. Bill Young Cell Transplantation Program, which is in turn operated by the nonprofit National Marrow Donor Program, more commonly referred to as Be the Match.
This is where Be the Match is able to step in to serve as a lifeline for patients in need. Founded in 1986 and with headquarters in Minnesota, Be the Match provides lifesaving bone marrow and umbilical cord blood transplants for the thousands of people diagnosed each year with conditions like leukemia and lymphoma. The organization’s national registry has grown to more than 39 million donors worldwide, with nearly 800,000 cord-blood units listed on registries globally.
This emerging field is guided by the simple concept that because each patient is different, his or her treatment must be uniquely tailored as well. While this sounds like common sense, it was not until recently that medical researchers had the technological ability to pinpoint unique genetic profiles for guiding prevention, diagnosis, and ultimately treatment of a disease. Now that innovation is beginning to catch up to the promise of personalized medicine, this field has the potential to not only save more lives, but also deliver care much more efficiently — which will likely lower health care costs in the long run.
In addition to providing lifesaving transplants, Be the Match contributes to our understanding of personalized medicine — a major interest of mine, given my position as co-chair of the Congressional Personalized Medicine Caucus.
And yet, as much as COVID-19 has dominated our attention — and rightly so — we should not forget that health care workers across the country continue to confront other challenges that predate the pandemic and will continue long after it has been brought under control. Among those challenges are the estimated 18,000 patients in 2020 diagnosed with life-threatening blood cancers or other similar diseases for which a blood stem cell transplant may be the only option for a cure.
Bone marrow and umbilical cord blood transplants take a donor’s healthy blood-forming cells and place them into a patient’s bloodstream, where they can grow and create healthy red and white blood cells and platelets. One of the major challenges Be the Match faces, however, is simply finding a donor in the first place. Unfortunately, 70% of patients in need of a transplant do not have a fully matched family member to serve as one.
In the case of Be the Match, the insights of personalized medicine help the organization to fulfill its primary responsibility: finding a match. But they will also bring us closer to ensuring all patients, including our most vulnerable and underrepresented populations, have increased access to bone marrow and umbilical cord blood transplants in the absence of a familial donor. Amid a global pandemic, the importance of Be the Match’s contributions to personalized medicine have grown even clearer, and their continued efforts have been a silver lining during a period of great uncertainty.
Be the Match’s commitment to patients in need did not halt during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the exacerbated supply chain and travel hardships, the organization did not miss a single scheduled transplant and completed more than 6,600 procedures in fiscal year 2020 — the most ever in its more than 30-year history and an inspiring example of Minnesota’s continued contribution to medical innovation.
This achievement reminds us all that even in the midst of the global pandemic, there is still plenty of good medical news. Policymakers in Congress must continue to ensure our nation’s medical innovators continue to have the support they need to turn today’s “medical miracles” into routine lifesaving procedures. Tom Emmer, a Republican, represents Minnesota Sixth Congressional District in the U.S. House.