Finding bone marrow for multi-racial children

Here and Now

This story was originally reported by PRI’s Here and Now. For more, listen to the audio above.

Mixed race families are becoming increasingly common in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, a record 14.6 percent of marriages in 2008 were between spouses of different races or ethnicities.

For the children of those marriages, finding bone marrow for cancer treatment can be extremely difficult. One such child is Devan Tatlow, who was diagnosed with acute Promyelocytic Leukemia, a rare child cancer, when he was one and a half years old. Tatlow needs bone marrow for treatment, but the chances of finding a perfect genetic match with a donor is about 1 in 200,000.

Multi-racial people make up only about 3 percent of the entire registry of bone marrow donors, Tatlow’s mother Indira Lakshmanan told PRI’s Here and Now. That makes it very difficult to find matches for specific children. So Lakshmanan decided to try to get as many people as possible to register as bone marrow donors through her Match Devon campaign.

Similar efforts have been made to get other races to register as bone marrow donors. The Gift of Life, for example, targets Jews. Finding a donor of the same race as the patient isn’t a guarantee that the transplant will match — and matches can be found among people with diverse genetic backgrounds — but finding someone of a similar race gives donors a better chance.

There are many misconceptions that cause people not to register as bone marrow donors. For one thing, the process is often portrayed as an agonizing experience. While it can cause some discomfort, Dr. Joseph Antin, chief of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, assures people it’s not painful.

The process of registering is as easy as swabbing your cheek with a q-tip. Dr. Antin cautions, however, that people who register as bone marrow donors should be willing to donate to anyone, not just a specific person.

“We have looked at this whole Match Devon campaign as something that was related to the greater good,” Lakshmanan told Here and Now. “Our belief was, if it doesn’t help our son, we hope that it’ll help thousands of other people who need transplants, 15,000 per year in our country alone.”

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