Donor registers 'should be shared across EU'
by Marina Yannakoudakis
European Union countries can save lives by working together and cooperating more closely on tissue and cell donor systems, writes MEP
The European Parliament's environment committee voted on Wednesday to approve my proposals for the voluntary donation of tissues and cells. My own-initiative report, if ultimately taken up by the European Commission and Council, would make it easier to find donor matches across Europe and to help save lives.
There is a case to be made for increased cooperation between the various donor systems across the 27 European Union member states. Bone marrow and stem cell transplants are often the only hope for people with leukaemia or other blood diseases. We need to tap into the value-added of the EU, by sharing donor registries across the bloc in order to better match tissues to recipients.
In multi-ethnic areas, such as my constituency of London, patients often need to look for donors abroad. Body tissues have racially-specific characteristics, which means that transplants are far more likely to be successful when the donor and recipient are of a similar ethnic background. It would be useful, for example, for Londoners of a Mediterranean heritage like me to be able to search the donor registries of the relevant countries. I have also included in the report a call for member states to develop programmes which encourage those from ethnic backgrounds to donate tissues and cells to public banks, as there is a paucity of successful donor matches in black and minority ethnic communities.
The proposals also look at the ethics of donation.The human body should not be a source of financial gain and my report rejects the practice of paying for tissues and cells, including sperm and eggs. However, there should be provisions for the fair and adequate compensation of donors for expenses such as travel or medical costs and loss of earnings.
Transparency and traceability is a key issue too when it comes to encouraging more people to donate tissues and cells. This is especially true when it comes to reproductive cells. A high standard of ethics and transparency is essential in ensuring public support for donation. More donors will only come forward if patient safety and traceability are ensured. This is the only way we can address the EU-wide shortage of certain tissues and cells, especially sperm and bone marrow.
Information is also important in this respect. Potential donors need adequate information in order to make informed choices. Donors also need to be brought up-to-date with some of the new and innovative methods of donation, such as extracting stem cells from umbilical cords.
My report contains a long section on cord blood and stem cells. Too few mothers are donating umbilical cord blood which leads to needless deaths. We need to raise awareness of how to give cord blood after the birth of a child. All too often umbilical cords and placentas are simply thrown away as medical waste, yet life-giving stem cells taken from cords can be used to treat cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Cord blood stem cells are even being used to treat a wide range of degenerative conditions such as heart disease, spinal injuries, stroke and multiple sclerosis.
In the United Kingdom. the department of health has provided £4m of funding for National Health Service Blood and Transplant and the Anthony Nolan Trust – which established the UK's first dedicated cord blood bank – to expand cord blood collection at a number of hospital collection sites to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The goal is to bank 15,000 cord units by 2014. Anthony Nolan and NHSBT also now jointly operate a single UK-wide stem-cell donor registry for British transplant centres.
This is just the kind of best practice that can be shared between member states. The expertise in collecting cord blood which has been built up in the UK can be communicated to other EU countries. The same goes for overcoming the difficulties in merging two different donor registries. The UK also has a lot to learn from countries such as Spain, France, Germany and Italy where there are government has supported national cord blood collection programmes.
The simple fact of the matter is that across the EU we are not collecting and storing enough tissues and cells to be used in transplants. To save more lives we need to work together. We must create a larger, more efficient system of donor registries where EU member states share information as well as best practice, all the while ensuring transparency and traceability. Working together the EU can achieve something concrete, and there is nothing more concrete than saving lives.
Marina Yannakoudakis is an MEP for London and a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament