Jay Feinberg knows firsthand the importance of bone marrow donations: At age 24, with only about a month to live during a struggle with leukemia, the American Jew received a perfectly matched gift of bone marrow from a Jewish teacher in New York that cured his disease.
A bone marrow tissue typing drive to save him, initially called Friends of Jay, aroused much interest in Israel in the 1990s and led to the establishment of the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Registry, a US foundation (www.giftoflife.org) headed by Feinberg. The foundation has an Israeli office and ranks among the top international registries facilitating bone marrow and blood stem cell transplants for patients suffering from life-threatening illnesses.
Feinberg has been in Israel several times with the specific mission of delivering vials of bone marrow to Israeli patients for transplant here. He has arrived in Israel for another visit to promote the expansion of the registry, as donors and recipients with similar ethnic backgrounds - such as being Jewish - have a better chance of having identical or similar tissue types and being perfectly or partially matched.
Recruitment drives held in Jerusalem more than a decade ago registered a turnout of 10,000 Israelis to be tested on his behalf. Today, the foundation is credited with saving the lives of two dozen Israeli citizens and facilitating over 1,000 transplants for patients around the world. There were a record 91 transplants in 2005 alone.
Feinberg, who worked in the US Federal Reserve Bank when he was diagnosed, is now 37. Neither his parents nor his two brothers were found to have a compatible tissue type, so he was forced to undergo chemotherapy without a bone-marrow transplant. His brother Steven, a California engineer, helped raise over $1 million to finance the processing of blood specimens which led to the identification of his perfect match, Becky Faibisoff.
Just before Faibisoff was identified as a match in 1995, Feinberg was scheduled to undergo a "mismatch" marrow transplant because his doctors feared he would die - and a mismatch was better than nothing. But friends of his, Benjy Merzel and Amir Gutman, decided to give one last try and collected samples in a yeshiva in Milwaukee. Becky went along to help, and she was the last person to give a blood sample, says Feinberg, who has forebears from the same part of Eastern Europe as Faibisoff.
He notes that, because Jews are minorities in the Diaspora, Jews who are ill with certain types of cancer or other relevant diseases often find it very difficult to find a suitable donor. In addition, the Holocaust-severed bloodlines have made the search for Jewish donors particularly difficult.
Feinberg has invited a select group of bone marrow donors, recipients and transplant specialists from Hadassah University Medical Center and Chaim Sheba Medical Center to a Jerusalem brunch on Friday. He also intends to participate in the birthright israel Mega Events.
"We take a tremendous amount of pride in our ability to facilitate transplants for so many patients in Israel and throughout the Diaspora," he said. "The saying 'All Israel are responsible for one another' is truly at the heart of our mission at Gift of Life."
Bone marrow, if it comes from a healthy donor, can jump-start the immune system of cancer patients who have undergone chemotherapy to kill the malignant cells in the body. Whether it constitutes a cure depends on the age of the recipient and other factors. A person with an exactly matched Human Lymphocyte Antigen (HLA) type, who has 20 identical factors out of a possible 350, is an ideal donor.
Gift of Life works closely with the Israeli bone marrow bank Ezer Mizion, and both share data with international bone marrow banks that have millions of samples, but there are disproportionately few Jews listed. Instead of taking a small amount of blood, as is done in Israel, Gift of Life takes cheek swabs. The cost is the same but this method is more efficient and doesn't scare away needle-shy potential donors.
Donors undergo a number of non-invasive tests, such as electrocardiograms and chest X-rays. Taken to the operating room, they receive epidural anesthesia (with an injection in the back). A needle puncture removes about a liter of bone marrow from the hip bone. The donor's body quickly regenerates the bone marrow and faces no danger.
In some cases, stem cells are easily removed from a vein instead of the end of the hip bone. The bone marrow or stem cells are transplanted via a simple transfusion into the recipient's arm, automatically homing into bone-marrow centers in the recipient's body to produce healthy blood cells.
Feinberg received an honorary doctorate at Yeshiva University's 81st annual Hanukka dinner and convocation in New York three weeks ago that was attended by New York's Hillary Clinton.