No bones about it, few would guess that the Office of Naval Research is the backbone of the National Bone Marrow Donor Program. In the 1950s, the Navy emerged as a pioneer in figuring out how to keep the body from rejecting organ transplants, including bone marrow transplants.
For a bone marrow transplant to work, the recipient's immune system must not try to destroy the donated marrow. It was Navy researchers who cracked the code in understanding how the proteins found on the surface of most cells in the body, called human leukocyte antigens, or HLA antigens, can be used to find compatible transplant donors.
Since only 30 percent of unrelated bone marrow donors can donate to each other, a test was needed to find a match. Today, potential donors from the National Bone Marrow Databank are screened with the inexpensive and effective HLA test developed by the Navy. These HLA antigens give the body's immune system the ability to determine what belongs in the human body and what does not. This is how the body also protects itself against harmful infection-causing bacteria or viruses.
Now, new work funded by ONR is looking for new ways to slow down tissue rejection response, allowing near matches.
It was at the instigation of Rep. C.W. (Bill) Young (R-Fla.), that Congress directed the Navy to establish a national bone marrow registry, and this is how ONR came to spend $32 million annually to support the Minneapolis-based National Marrow Donor Program and 94 donor centers around the country. Since the program's inception in 1986, more than 3 million Americans have registered as volunteer marrow donors. Over 250,000 of these are Department of Defense employees.
"The new research in looking at cells at the molecular level, and finding out exactly what in the underlying processes initiates the rejection response, has applications to all transplants," says Lieutenant Commander David Street, an ONR program manager.