Professor Nalini Ambady (1959-2013)
By Michelle Meyer
Bonjour de Toulouse, where I’m visiting this month at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAST), which is hosted by the Université de Toulouse Capitole and physically (and in many senses conceptually) situated inside the Toulouse School of Economics. That setting is a particularly good one for this post on markets in human tissue.
In early October, I wrote about a rule that the Department of Health and Human Services has proposed that would amend the National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA) to criminalize compensation for providing peripheral blood stem cells (PBSCs) given through apheresis. Compensating those who allow their bone marrow to be aspirated — the other major source of hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) — is already explicitly criminalized under the statute. At the end of the post, I promised to follow up with a second post on why I’m skeptical about this rule, as a matter of policy. This is that post.
But before discussing appropriate policy for addressing the problem of the 3,000 Americans who die each year for want of a bone marrow transplant, and for reasons I’ll explain near the end of my post, I want to say something about one particular person: Professor Nalini Ambady, a Stanford social psychologist who, about one year ago, began an international search for a compatible, willing HSC donor to treat her leukemia.
Because she is South Asian, and because few Asians and other racial and ethnic minorities are listed in the U.S. bone marrow registry — South Asians comprise only 2% of the U.S. registry — she had a difficult time finding a match. She nevertheless found 12 potential matches in the U.S. bone marrow registry, and apparently at one point had scheduled the transplant. In the end, however, half were ruled out as imperfect matches — and each of the remaining six matches declined to donate.
Having exhausted the U.S. registry, Ambady and her supporters sought a match in South Asia registries — but even fewer people are registered in that region than in the U.S. Of India’s 1.2 billion people, for example, only about 45,000 are registered. Nevertheless, a potential thirteenth match was found in an Indian registry. He matched at least 6 of 10 HLA markers; he would need a blood test to determine whether he was a complete match. Unfortunately, after a worrisome week of silence about whether he was indeed a complete match, Ambady and her family learned that the potential donor had backed out.
And then a potential fourteenth match:
Weeks later, it happened with another potential match for Nalini, this time an 8/10 and so an even likelier match. This man wanted to watch someone else donate their bone marrow before making up his mind. A registry chief actually arranged this for him in early May. Somehow, it wasn’t persuasive enough. He, too, decided not to donate.
Professor Ambady died on October 28 after eight compatible or potentially compatible registered donors ultimately declined to donate.
Apparently, declining to donate after agreeing to be listed in a registry and being found to be a match is quite common. According to one registry chief, the attrition rate is 50% in the U.S., Europe, and India. Would a financial incentive have tipped any of these vaccillating prospective donors towards a decision to donate? Although we can’t say, this is an eminently answerable question. Unfortunately, the Department seems uninterested in learning whether a compensation scheme would save lives — or have ill or counterproductive effects — or not.
In its Notice, the Department lists the following policy reasons for expanding NOTA’s list of “organs,” the exchange of which for valuable consideration is prohibited, to include PBSCs: (1) preventing commodification; (2) curbing opportunities for coercion of PBSC providers and (3) exploitation of PBSC recipients; (4) encouraging altruistic donations, and (5) decreasing the likelihood of disease transmission resulting from paid donations. My responses to these arguments are after the jump. I end with some thoughts about alternative policy tools for increasing the supply of PBSCs in the absence of a legal compensation scheme.