Héma-Québec has lowered the maximum age of those who can sign up to be stem-cell donors from 50 to 35, raising concerns among some people in minority ethnic communities that the policy will limit their chances of finding a match if they get certain forms of cancer.
The organization that runs Quebec's blood and tissue bank made the change quietly last fall, only mentioning it in a newsletter it published in February.
The director of Héma-Québec's stem cell donor registry, Diane Roy, said transplant doctors generally prefer younger donors because their stem cells have an increased chance of survival for recipients. Plus, it costs nearly $500 to test each potential donor, which there's no point in spending on older donors if the doctors who are using the stem cells don't want them.
Héma-Québec also maintains that while in the rest of Canada, people can still register to be stem cell donors up to age 50, many European countries cut off registration at age 35.
However, in France and Belgium, the maximum age is still 50, while in Britain it's 40.
Héma-Québec's new policy is already turning away potential donors of stem cells.
Steve Bonspiel, a 36-year-old Mohawk man, attended a special stem cell donor drive a few weeks ago to help find a match for a cancer patient from the Kahnawake First Nation. Bonspiel said he was surprised when Héma-Québec told him he couldn't be a donor, but he pushed and eventually was allowed to provide a sample — though other, older Mohawks were turned away.
The new policy will make it especially harder for people from smaller ethnic communities to find a donor match, he said.
"For Mohawks and for native people, our pool all of a sudden is a lot smaller," Bonspiel said. "For anybody who is suffering from leukemia who needs a bone marrow transplant, all of a sudden their primary pool has been reduced.
"There's only so many Mohawk people, there's only so many native people. So we have a special DNA makeup, so now they have to go to other places, elsewhere across the country, across the province. There's not a lot of people who want to be donors."
Héma-Québec acknowledges this is a problem. "Very few people from the cultural communities are currently enrolled in the stem cell donor registry," it says in its newsletter from February.
Roy said the organization can't make exceptions for ethnic groups with a small gene pool in Quebec.
"No, because it's regulated so we decided that we wanted to have younger donors. And the doctor will choose a younger donor. The tendency is for everybody to lower the age criteria, so, because that's the reality. That's what the physician wants."
Stem cells are produced in a healthy person's bone marrow, but they're commonly transplanted into patients receiving treatment for leukemia or other forms of cancer, like lymphoma or multiple myeloma, that destroy or hinder their body's bone marrow. These stem cells are early-stage blood cells that can develop into red blood cells, white blood cells or platelets.