Barnsley engineer’s stem cells now in the centre he helped build ready to help save his life

21 February 2024

Darren Dowlen saw his own stem cells at the NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) centre he helped build – they will be used to help save his life.

Darren, 58, an engineer from Barnsley, South Yorkshire, visited the new NHSBT Barnsley centre this month.

He worked on the creation of the centre in 2018, overseeing the erection of the steel frame.

Darren Dowlen outside NHSBT's Barnsley centreDarren now has myeloma. During the visit saw his own frozen stem cells, which were collected by the NHSBT’s Therapeutic Apheresis Services Unit in Sheffield.

Darren will receive his stem cells back following chemotherapy. The chemotherapy will kill his cancer cells but could also damage his bone marrow, which is where cells are made, putting him at risk of bleeding and infections.

The reinfusion of his own stem cells should help his bone marrow recover within a week or two.

During the visit, Darren met staff including the nurse who collected his stem cells, the driver who transported his cells, and the scientists who processed and stored them.

He said: “The visit was so interesting. Not many people get that chance. It was unbelievable.

“I helped build it. I was the engineer for the steel erecting company T&A Construction and Compass engineering.

“You could see the outline of the steel frame in the stem cell storage room itself and you can see the frame itself at the entrance.

“More people need to understand how stem cells work. When I went in to have my cells collected, there were people were just going in to donate. Young people. I thought that was brilliant. Just to help other people out. Absolute magic.”

He added: “I want to carry on as long as I can. You don’t realise what you will get in later life. The treatment means everything.”

NHSBT has seen a rise in the number of stem cell collections we’re asked to provide. NHS Blood and Transplant made 498 stem cell collections in Yorkshire in 2020 and 875 in 2023. Nationally, collections went from 1,193 in 2020 to 1,751 in 2023.

Darren Dowlen sees his froze stem cell donation
Darren Dowlen sees his frozen stem cell donation

Dr Khaled El-Ghariani, NHSBT Consultant for Therapeutic Apheresis Services in Yorkshire, said: “There are various reasons why we have seen more stem cell patients in recent years.

“Clinical skills have improved. Transplants are now offered to people such as older age groups and people with clinical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, who did not have transplants years ago.

“More indications are also emerging, for example people with illnesses such as sickle cell - this was not the case years ago.

“We also have a bigger donor registry now. Darren will have his own cells back but for many other conditions we need a donor to provide the cells. We still need more donors to join the British Bone Marrow Registry, especially those of south Asian and African Caribbean heritage, as they are not well represented.”

Stem cells transplants are mostly used when there is an issue stopping your bone marrow from working. They are is mostly used for blood cancers such as leukaemia.

NHS Blood and Transplant especially needs men under 40 to join the British Bone Marrow Registry (BBMR) – they are more likely to be able to provide high numbers of healthy stem cells with fewer potential complications – and also black and Asian men and women under 40 due to the shortage of ethnically matched donors for people in those populations.

Find out more about becoming a stem cell donor.

The Barnsley centre opened in 2021 provides blood, organ, stem cell and other related medical products to 39 hospitals in the north of England. The many teams and functions including specialist training laboratories, cellular and molecular therapies, blood and organ compatibility testing and specialist nurses in organ donation.