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Vol. LX, No. 5
March 07, 2008

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Mother, Daughter Donate Cells, Years Apart

Michelle Barsky Gins (r) donates peripheral blood stem cells under the watchful eyes of (from l) DTM’s Sarah Pogue and Dr. Susan Leitman and Michelle’s mother, Annie Barsky.
Michelle Barsky Gins (r) donates peripheral blood stem cells under the watchful eyes of (from l) DTM’s Sarah Pogue and Dr. Susan Leitman and Michelle’s mother, Annie Barsky.

Michelle Barsky Gins and her mother, Annie Barsky, recently spent a memorable day at NIH together. Barsky accompanied her daughter who donated blood stem cells by apheresis for the first time in the Clinical Center’s department of transfusion medicine (DTM).

According to Sarah Pogue, senior coordinator of NIH’s marrow donor program, Gins was their 377th donor and her mother the 40th. When Dr. Susan Leitman, chief of DTM’s blood services section, walked into the clinic to chat with Gins, she recognized Barsky as one of NIH’s earliest volunteer donors who gave bone marrow for a transplant to an unrelated recipient in 1992.

“Like mother, like daughter, they keep giving as a family tradition,” Leitman said. “They have altruistically given the gift of life through a complicated, sometimes uncomfortable and time-consuming procedure to two people they do not know. What a family!”

Barsky joined the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) registry in 1989 through a drive at her synagogue to find a match for a Jewish woman in her twenties with Lithuanian relatives. According to Pogue, 6,000 patients search the registry at any given time for a match because they have only a 30 percent chance of finding a match within their own family and must also consider unrelated donors from similar locations or ethnicities.

For a successful transplant, the tissue type of an unrelated donor needs to match the patient’s as closely as possible. Because tissue types are inherited, patients are more likely to match someone from their own race or ethnicity. Adding more donors and cord blood units from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to the NMDP registry increases the likelihood that all patients will find the match they need.

Barsky’s family came from Russia and Poland and their family felt it was important for them to be tested so that even if they weren’t a match or a transplant was not successful, they would be part of giving patients the best possible chance at a new or prolonged life.

“I knew when they took my blood that I would match someone. I wasn’t a match for the young woman, but I wasn’t surprised when months later, right before Michelle’s bat mitzvah, I learned that I was a match for a 7-year-old boy,” Barsky said. Her donation became a successful transplant, extending his life by a year and a half, and she was able to talk with her recipient before he died. Gins joined the NMDP registry in 1997, when she turned 18, the minimum age for donation. “It wasn’t even a question for me. I just knew that of course I was going to sign up on the registry,” she said.

Gins matched a 53-year-old woman with leukemia, who received the cells hand-delivered the day after Gins’ donation. For 4 days before her procedure, Gins took shots that prepared her cells for harvesting but also gave her flu-like aches and pains. The discomfort didn’t dissuade her. “Not everyone is a match. Now that I am, this is the right thing to do.”

According to Leitman, the generational difference between Gins and her mother is a reflection of the generational differences in how DTM collects hematopoietic, or blood-forming stem cells. In 1992, the first-generation process was to collect bone marrow using general anesthesia and a brief surgical procedure. Apheresis, which is similar to regular blood donation and requires no anesthesia, has now largely replaced marrow harvests. Around 60 percent of collections for NMDP-facilitated transplants are peripheral blood stem cells gathered this way. Only 20 percent of NMDP collections are bone marrow and the other 20 percent are umbilical cord blood collections, which are a rapidly growing proportion. “Maybe the next generation of donors after Michelle will be thought of as the ‘cord blood’ generation,” Leitman speculated.

NMDP now facilitates about 300 unrelated-donor transplants every month and maintains a registry of about 4,500,000 U.S. residents willing to be donors. Those interested in joining the NIH chapter of the registry should contact Pogue via email ( or call (301) 496-0572. To learn more about becoming a donor, visit NMDP at NIHRecord Icon

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