Stanford students drive bone marrow registry effort

Stanford students have joined the race to save the lives of leukemia patients by rallying their classmates, faculty and staff to register as potential bone marrow donors – particularly if they are of mixed race.

The Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association and the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies, in collaboration with the Asian American Donor Program (AADP), are sponsoring a two-day drive for donors this Thursday and Friday. Those between the ages of 18 and 44 can fill out consent forms and give cheek swabs at White Plaza, Encina Hall and the Engineering Quad between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

The campus campaign gained ground after LARA CASALOTTI, the niece of Stanford political science professor SCOTT SAGAN and cousin of two Stanford students, was diagnosed in December with acute myeloid leukemia. The blood cancer requires a stem cell transplant and she urgently needed to find a donor match by April.

Casalotti, 24, is of Thai-Chinese-Italian descent, which meant finding her a donor match was particularly challenging.

While millions of potential donors are registered around the world, fewer than 3 percent are of mixed race. Of the 12.5 million people who have registered for the U.S. national registry, Be The Match, only 4 percent are of mixed race and 6 percent are African Americans. By comparison, 61 percent of the registrants are Caucasian.

Over the weekend, Casalotti, a human rights activist who is working on her master’s degree in global migration at University College London, got encouraging news: The British national registry had found a bone marrow match for her.

“If all goes as planned, I will go to transplant soon,” Casalotti said from her hospital bed in London. “It’s incredible to think that this person is one in 25 million.”

The social media campaign started in early January by Casalotti and her cousins at Stanford and abroad went viral and inspired a worldwide surge of more than 20,000 new donors for leukemia patients.

Casalotti urged students at Stanford to still sign up as potential donors, as there are more than 14,000 leukemia patients who need stem cell transplants.

“From the very beginning, this campaign has been not just about finding a match for me, but diversifying the donor registries and just getting more people on the registries in general,” she said. “We need to keep going – let’s find a match for all.”

RUBY LAW of the Bay Area AADP said more than 600 students, faculty and staffers are expected to turn out and join the registry.

“It’s really easy to give a swab, it’s painless, but we want to make sure that those who sign up stay committed,” Law said. Even if Casalotti no longer needs a match, registered donors can potentially help other patients.

The initial process is simple. If a swab appears to be a partial match, the donation process moves to a blood sample to determine if the donor is a perfect match.

“I am moved to see Lara and her loving family launch this truly global campaign,” Sagan said. “Expanding and diversifying the bone marrow registry are vitally important to the 14,000 leukemia patients around the world who need to find a match. Lara and her cousins know that every new donor counts.”

Such British notables as author J.K. ROWLING, comedian STEPHEN FRY and fashion photographer MARIO TESTINO tweeted about the Match4Lara campaign. Prime Minister DAVID CAMERON urged members of Parliament to reach out to their constituents and the number of registrants on the British donor list jumped fivefold. Hollywood stars, journalists and major social media platforms around the world have taken up the cause. A Facebook page devoted to the campaign has had hundreds of thousands of likes and shares.

NINA LIGON, a Stanford senior majoring in product design, is one of Casalotti’s 11 cousins who took up the challenge of finding her a match. Another cousin is a current student; three others are recent Stanford graduates.

“Out of all our cousins, she’s always been the kindest and most selfless,” Ligon said. “But the great thing has been raising so much awareness about how this can happen to anyone – and how essential and easy it is to become a donor.”