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Dentist takes personal crusade to the next level

ADA policy supports dentist involvement in bone marrow registry drives

May 19, 2014

By Stacie Crozier

American Dental Association
In-office drive: Jennifer Pohlman hands off her oral swab to Dr. Steve Conlon in Grand Rapids, Mich., for submission to become a registered bone marrow donor. Photo by Jim Keating

Grand Rapids, Mich.—Dr. Steven Conlon has been fighting for those with leukemia or lymphoma since he lost his father-in-law, Dr. Thomas A. Bowles, to acute myeloid leukemia in 2006.

Dr. Bowles, a general dentist in Flint, Michigan, died before he could receive a bone marrow transplant.

Since then, Dr. Conlon's involvement has grown from fundraising in his practice and his community to spearheading bone marrow donor drives in a statewide program sponsored by the Michigan Dental Association, and even helping launch similar programs in Georgia and New York.

"Shortly after my father-in-law died, I learned I had a patient with the same disease, and he survived because he received a bone marrow donation," Dr. Conlon said. "I learned more about bone marrow donation and found it would be pretty easy to have dentists register potential donors right in their own offices."

Dr. Conlon pitched his idea to the Michigan Dental Association. In drives held in May 2012 and November 2013, dentists participating in the "Take A Bite Out of Cancer" program registered more than 3,000 potential donors, resulting in seven lifesaving transplants to date—a statistic Dr. Conlon says is unusually high. The MDA program was conducted in cooperation with Delete Blood Cancer DKMS with support from The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Michigan.

"When Dr. Conlon approached the MDA about getting involved with a bone marrow drive through dental offices, we immediately thought it was a good fit for our members," said Dr. Marty Makowski, MDA president. "What better way to educate the public and our patients about the importance of becoming a part of the bone marrow registry than through dental offices? It was a natural fit."

In 2012, the ADA House of Delegates passed a resolution encouraging patients to participate in bone marrow matching programs.

Resolution 162H-2012 states "that the ADA urges members to support participation in the bone marrow matching program by providing appropriate literature in their offices, gathering samples and forwarding them for registration."

Since it isn't necessary for a medical or dental professional to conduct the swabbing, dentists can also encourage patients to obtain kits, swab their own cheeks and mail the samples and information to a bone marrow registry.

American Dental Association
Advocating: Rep. Gail Haines, R-Waterford, Mich., chair, House Health Policy Committee, swabs her cheek to register as a bone marrow donor during a 2013 news conference in the Michigan Capitol to kick off the Michigan Dental Association bone marrow drive. Photo by Gary Shrewsbury

The process is simple, Dr. Conlon said. Dentists can sign up on Delete Blood Cancer's website ( to participate. The organization will provide complete registration materials (with instructions, swabs and return labels) and support to participating dentists' offices. Dentists also receive simple talking points and educational materials they can use to explain the process to their patients. Office staff can walk patients through the registration form and cheek swab and return completed forms and swabs to Delete Blood Cancer for typing.

"According to the Leukemia and Lymphona society, there are 1.5 million people in the U.S. living with or in remission from a form of blood cancer," Dr. Conlon said. "The response in Michigan has been wonderful. Swabbing a patient is easy to incorporate into a hygiene visit. Dentists can really make a difference and save lives because the majority of patients they see are in the target ages of donors, ages 18-55. Blood cancer patients who need transplants only have about a 25 percent chance that a related sibling is a match, so they depend on worldwide registries to find a life-saving match."

Increasing the donor base is even more critical for population groups that are underrepresented in donor registries, Dr. Conlon said. According to the National Marrow Donor Program, minority donors are particularly needed. The make-up of the national registry is 67 percent Caucasian, 10 percent Hispanic/Latino, 7 percent African-American, 7 percent Asian, 4 percent multi-ethnicity, 1 percent Native American/Alaskan Native and 0.2 percent Native Hawaiian/other/Pacific Islander.

Cheek swab samples are typed to determine their unique Human Leukocyte Antigen profile, and physicians can search these profiles to identify a possible match for patients who don't have a compatible donor in their family.

"Very few registered individuals are ever called on to donate their bone marrow," Dr. Conlon added. The odds of being contacted for a medical workup for a potential donation are less than 1 percent. Registrants who do end up donating may be asked to do so via two methods: the peripheral blood stem cell donation method uses a machine to extract blood from one arm, separate out the stem cells and return the blood to the other arm, while the surgical method uses a special syringe to extract bone marrow from the back of the pelvic bone.

"It was incredibly gratifying to know that we made a difference," said Dr. Makowski. "As a result of our two campaigns, seven bone marrow transplants were facilitated. It's nice to know that we had a major impact on the lives of people in need."

"I was surprised to see how easy it was to get patients in Michigan to participate," Dr. Conlon said. "Patients trust us and they are happy to get behind a program that could save lives. My goal is to take this program nationwide."

This month, the Georgia Dental Association and the New York State Dental Association are also conducting statewide bone marrow donor drives in their members' offices.

"We are proud to partner in a campaign to save lives," said Dr. Marshall Mann, GDA president. "Dentists are on the forefront of detection and prevention for a wide range of health concerns. This partnership between the GDA and Delete Blood Cancer DKMS will highlight the relationship between oral health and overall health and the important role dentists play as health care providers. We know that Georgia dentists are health care professionals who care. This campaign will help us underline that fact."

NYSDA extended its member registration period due to increasing interest, with more than 50 offices responding by the end of April. Throughout May and June, participating dental offices will offer interested patients the opportunity to self-swab and register as potential bone marrow donors.

"We are excited and proud to partner with Delete Blood Cancer DKMS to register dental patients as potential bone marrow donors for people diagnosed with blood cancers," said Dr. Joel M. Friedman, NYSDA president. "A number of NYSDA members, some touched by relatives and friends with blood cancers, had themselves registered as potential bone marrow donors. Building on the experience of the Michigan Dental Association, we are hopeful that participation in this program will grow and result in an increased availability of bone marrow donors to aid in combatting these insidious diseases."

For more information on how dentists and dental societies can get involved, visit