Stem cell carriers providing lifesaving shipments across the globe

Stem cell carriers providing lifesaving shipments across the globe

Despite the current pandemic with COVID-19, many blood stem cell transplants are still going ahead and the logistics around arranging the transport of the stem cells across the globe for individuals with blood cancer have become much more challenging and complex.

Recently, Maria who works for DKMS Germany but also volunteers as stem cell courier traveled from Germany to the United States with life saving blood cells for a patient with blood cancer. Maria is a teacher and carries out transports during the school holidays. She applied to Ontime Onboard Courier GmbH, one of the transport companies that DKMS works with to bring life-saving blood stem cells to the recipients.

Blood stem cell couriers like Maria are currently in great demand to ensure that blood stem cell donations reach their recipients all over the world safely, even during the COVID-19 crisis. A few weeks ago, her latest assignment was to travel to the US. "The process for a courier mission is actually always the same," she explains, "we have a briefing the day before and go through all documents together and the entire itinerary is discussed. Everything important detail is marked and addressed."

However, the process is a little different during this time of a pandemic, especially when travelling to the United States. The couriers must carry a special permit that allows them to enter the US. Currently, entry to the US is only possible because DKMS, with the support of the US Stem Cell Donor Register: National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP/Be the Match), has obtained a special permit for stem cell couriers to enter the country - so that patients can receive urgently needed transplants.
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Pilots becoming couriers
However, in demanding days like these, we need to be even more flexible and creative in order to find working solutions. Our stem cell process is one good example of this. Life-saving transplants are usually accompanied and carefully guarded at all stages of transport by an individually selected courier. Due to significant entry restrictions and quarantine regulations in many countries, plus the lack of passenger flights, we have had to find an alternative approach.

Our solution: We successfully approached airline pilots to assume the role of couriers in delivering urgently needed stem cells to blood cancer patients all over the world. This has worked out extremely well. The box containing the precious cargo is stowed in the cockpit and transported to the destination airport, where a local courier is already waiting to take the sensitive shipment to the respective hospital.
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Be The Match is a nonprofit registry based in Minneapolis that serves people diagnosed with a variety of life-threatening blood, bone marrow or immune system disorders. The bag that Laurie Olesen grippers as she walked through the airport looks like any other carry on. But the bright blue canvas tote would hold the last, best hope of survival for a desperately ill patient.

Olesen is a volunteer courier for Be The Match. She is one of 400 of specially trained volunteers that form a crucial, reliable and affordable link between donors and patients.These couriers are prepared to get a call, race to the airport and reach across time zones with perishable product that comes with a true deadline. The consequences of a delay can be devastating- even lethal- for a patient waiting for the unique match.They also never meet-or even learn the names of- donors or recipients. They typically pick up a numbered product at one lab and deliver it to another.

Although Olesen retired from Be The Match two years ago, she keeps her bag packed and her passport ready so she can continue to fly as a volunteer.
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