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Ending Blood Cancer’s Greater Toll on the Black Community

Black man with a healthcare provider

Black Americans are hit harder by multiple myeloma. They tend to develop this blood cancer at younger ages and, historically, have been more likely to die from it.

While we can't cure this blood cancer, we have effective treatments. And Black people may respond better to stem cell transplants and other newer treatments.

dr. downs equity advocate at uva health
Celebrating Black History Month: Tracy Downs, MD, directs equity efforts at UVA Health. He shares what Black History Month means to him in this Q&A about racial healing.

Improving Access to Stem Cell Transplants

For myeloma, patients are their own donors for a stem cell transplant. This type of transplant is known as autologous stem cell transplantation (ASCT). Black and Hispanic patients are less likely to undergo ASCT and, when they do, are more likely to do so at later stage of their disease, studies show.

At UVA Health, we’re making sure everyone can access a stem cell transplant. A transplant offers hope for treating not only multiple myeloma but other blood cancers like:

“We need to improve access to transplant and other high-end care,” says Karen Ballen, MD, a UVA Health stem cell transplant specialist and Chief of the Hematology/Oncology Division. She conducts clinical trials to help improve access to stem cell transplants for blood cancer.

Where you live makes a difference: A recent study looked at Virginia residents with acute myeloid leukemia. It found people in Northern Virginia are 3X more likely to get a stem cell transplant than people in southern Virginia.  

Finding a Marrow Donor Match for Everyone

Transplants for treating some other blood cancers like leukemia require a bone marrow donor.  

Bone marrow is where our body’s blood cells are made. Blood cancer happens when blood cells grow uncontrollably in damaged bone marrow.

It is harder for patients who are not of Northern European background to find a fully matched donor in the donor registry, Ballen notes. But UVA Health does a lot of research using “mismatched” donors from the registry.

Facing Blood Cancer

You'll need a blood cancer doctor on your side.

And the preliminary results are excellent.

Clinical Trial To Help Advance Blood Cancer Treatment 

Ballen’s research is designed to help people with blood cancer who don’t have a family member match or match from someone on the national marrow donor registry.  

She recently completed a clinical trial using donors who aren’t perfect matches. New drugs allow doctors like Ballen to safely use mismatched donors. These drugs help prevent a severe form of graft vs. host disease (when the body rejects a transplant) 

“We're able to find a donor for almost all of our patients. We can match them with a donor in the registry, someone in their family, or use blood from an umbilical cord. That is a huge advance in our field,” says Ballen.

She adds, “In 2024, no one should be denied a stem cell transplant because they don't have a donor.”  

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