The resources are there to establish an urgently needed bone marrow transplant center in Armenia. So why is it still on the back burner?
BY MIHRAN NAZARETYAN, MD
More than a decade ago a visionary organization, the Armenian Bone Marrow Donor Registry, was launched to help Armenians around the world survive life-threatening illnesses by recruiting bone marrow donors and matching them to those requiring transplants.
In 2009 another milestone was reached when the registry opened its Stem Cell Harvesting Center in Yerevan. The next logical step would’ve been the establishment of a full-fledged bone marrow transplant center in the capital, thereby relieving patients of the prohibitive cost of traveling abroad to receive a life-saving transplant.
Today, while the lives of numerous patients hang in the balance, the transplant-center project remains at a standstill. We know the resources are there. We know the Armenian government and the Diaspora can easily join forces to bring this vital project to fruition. So why the inaction? Considering what’s at stake, it bears repeating that even a single life lost is one life too many.
A pan-national mission
Given their unique genetic makeup, Armenian patients who suffer from life-threatening blood-related illnesses depend on bone marrow stem cells donated by fellow Armenians for a possible match, hence their only chance of survival through a bone marrow transplant. This is why the launch of the Armenian Bone Marrow Donor Registry, in 1999, was an extraordinary achievement, as it immediately began to benefit Armenians, and also other ethnicities, throughout the world.
To date, the registry has recruited more than 20,000 donors across three continents, identified 1,696 patients, found 1,419 potential matches, and facilitated ten bone marrow transplants. These accomplishments have been made possible through an extensive and consistent campaign that includes donor recruitment drives, walkathons, and an ongoing effort to raise public awareness, all realized by a corps of dedicated volunteers.
The ABMDR reached a watershed moment in 2009, when it opened its Stem Cell Harvesting Center in Yerevan. The site, adjacent to the Hematology Center in Yerevan’s Zeytun district, was provided by the Armenian Health Ministry. The ABMDR completely renovated the site and equipped it with state-of-the-art medical and research machinery, in accordance with international standards.
The only one of its kind in the Caucasus, the Stem Cell Harvesting Center collects, processes, and stores donated bone marrow stem cells, making them available to patients who need a bone marrow transplant. Last year the center made history when it performed its maiden stem cell harvesting procedure. Thanks to the procedure, a bone marrow transplant was later performed in Belgium, saving the life of a patient who suffered from a potentially terminal blood-related disease.
The work of the ABMDR has garnered the praise and technical support of world healthcare organizations and certification agencies. Moreover, thanks to the impassioned efforts of the registry, Armenia has been chosen as the first country in the Caucasus to host a meeting of the European Federation for Immunogenetics, later this year.
As the ABMDR carries out its mission into its second decade, one of its outstanding characteristics continues to be the fact that it’s a product of genuine collaboration between the diaspora and the homeland. From its very inception, the organization has drawn the support of the diaspora as well as the government of Armenia, and in recent years benefactors in the homeland have joined the roster of the registry’s supporters.
While the ABMDR’s Stem Cell Harvesting Center is a singular healthcare achievement in the history of Armenia, the feasibility of saving lives through bone marrow transplantation still eludes the vast majority of patients in Armenia. This is so for the simple reason that there is as yet no bone marrow transplant facility in Armenia.
As a result, patients suffering from potentially fatal blood-related diseases, such as leukemia and other cancers, must travel abroad to receive the life-saving transplants they so desperately need. Most residents of Armenia cannot afford even a fraction of the costs. These include travel, bone marrow acquisition, and transplant-procedure expenses. For now, the only financial break that patients get is the waiving of costs involved in the evaluation and immunological testing of potential stem cell donors, performed to determine whether they meet the required criteria for becoming donors.
The net effect of this state of affairs is that an alarming number of patients requiring bone marrow transplantation, many of whom are children or young people, are unable to receive treatment and therefore may face losing their lives.
For the past several years, the ABMDR has campaigned tirelessly to get the project of establishing a bone marrow transplant center in Yerevan off the ground.
In this respect, the goal of the registry is to acquire a critical mass of support which would comprise not only the financial assistance of donors in the Diaspora and Armenia, but, chiefly, the full backing and logistical go-ahead of the Armenian government. Indeed, it is the belief of the ABMDR that the launch of a bone marrow transplant center in Yerevan is, in the main, a moral responsibility of the Armenian state.
The road ahead
Of the several ingredients necessary for the realization of the transplant center project, the primary one would be the commitment of the Armenian government to allocate a seed fund. The total amount required for the initiative could be secured through a variety of sources and conduits including fundraisers, corporate grants, and individual philanthropic gifts, in addition to a government subsidy.
Once the Armenian government stands firmly behind the project and initial funding is secured, the ABMDR would be in an ideal position to bring the project to fruition. That’s because, apart from its technical know-how, the registry has extensive experience in raising funds and using resources with optimal efficiency.
Of equal importance is the ABMDR’s longstanding tradition of partnering with charitable organizations, corporations, and medical institutions in order to enhance the scope and effectiveness of its activities. The registry’s major partners include Glendale Memorial Hospital, the Lincy Foundation, and Armenia’s Viva Cell-MTS — whose executive director, Mr. Ralph Yirikian, has played an instrumental role in the development of the Stem Cell Harvesting Center in Yerevan, by financing the purchase of top-notch medical equipment as well as costly reagents used for genetic typing.
Funds raised for the transplant center are expected to be used for not only construction and operational equipment, but the training of specialists in Europe and the United States.
The creation of a bone marrow transplant center in Yerevan would mean a great leap forward for Armenian healthcare. The existence of such a facility would at long last provide the Armenian public with access to locally available, affordable, and life-saving bone marrow transplantation, sparing patients the exorbitant costs of traveling abroad and receiving treatment.
Today, as the ABMDR continues to lobby the Armenian government for its support of the planned bone marrow transplant center, we hope that benefactors, corporations, and the public at large, in the Diaspora and Armenia alike, will do their share to ensure that our cherished dream becomes reality. What is needed most at the moment is the political will to greenlight the initiative.
Imagine the prospect: a world-class medical facility in the heart of Armenia, helping save lives and bringing the gift of hope to thousands in Armenia and beyond, in conjunction with the ABMDR’s already significant bone marrow donor pool and the work of the Stem Cell Harvesting Center. The time to act is now.
Dr. Mihran Nazaretyan is the medical director of the Stem Cell Harvesting Center in Yerevan.