Boy, 4, with Leukemia Underscores Need for Multiracial Bone Marrow Donors

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Four-year-old Devan Tatlow's life depends on doctors finding a bone marrow donor for the boy by the end of July. If he was Caucasian, those odds would be pretty good, but, because the boy is of mixed-race, he and his family are facing a terrifying struggle to find a suitable donor.

Devan has only a 3 percent chance of finding a perfectly matched donor, according to the Washington Post. If he were Caucasian, Devan would have an 80 percent chance of finding a match, but he is one-quarter South Asian and three-quarters Caucasian, and that cuts his odds significantly.

Devan has high-risk acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), and is currently undergoing chemotherapy at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. APL is a rare form of blood cancer that affects the way blood cells grow, rendering them incapable of doing what normal blood cells do, according to AOL Health.

Doctors have told Devan's parents, Washington, D.C. journalists Indira Lakshmanan and Dermot Tatlow, that a transplant of bone marrow, stem cells or umbilical cord blood performed after 10 weeks of treatment offers Devan the best chance of survival, according to the Post; the five-year survival rate after transplant is estimated to be 70 percent, while without a transplant, Devan's options are limited.

Out of 8 milllion names, there are only about 250,000 mixed-race donors listed in the National Marrow Donor Program's "Be the Match" registry, the Post reports, and more than 74 percent are white, with Asians and African-Americans accounting for 7 percent each.

Matches are based on inherited tissue markers called human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), according to the newspaper, of which there are believed to be 5 million, some of them very rare. For this reason, a matching donor is much more likely to be found in the same racial or ethnic group as the recipient.

Lakshmanan and Tatlow have searched an additional six million donors in international registries, according to the Post, and still have not been able to find a single perfect match.

"I still find it unbelievable that they couldn't find one match for him among 14 million donors," Lakshmanan tells the Post. "This is not just about Devan, but reflects a severe shortage of donors for patients who are multiracial, one of the fastest-growing demographic groups in the United States."

To help Devan find the critical match he needs, the MatchDevan website was launched in mid-May as part of an international campaign that has attracted support from people worldwide, including public figures Ashton Kutcher, Kim Kardashian and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, along with a number of notable television reporters.

Devan's celebrity supporters have helped spread his story to their millions of Twitter followers and, to date, more than a dozen bone marrow drives have been arranged in the United States and England, and more than 560 people have registered as donors, reports the Post.

Devan's website features photos of other patients who are waiting for matches, dispels common myths about the donation process and encourages people to register as a donor, or to arrange to donate umbilical cord blood to the public cord blood bank.

Umbilical cord blood contains stem cells, immature cells that can grow into many other types of cells, and are one of the treatments for conditions such as leukemia or sickle cell anemia, according to AOL Health.

Bone marrow transplants are increasingly being seen as successful in treating a growing range of disorders, reports the Post, but the procedure still carries significant risks, even death. However, improvements in treatment have resulted in better outcomes, Willis Navarro, medical director of transplant services for the National Marrow Donor Program, explains to the newspaper. As a result, the expanded use of transplants has underscored the critical need for mixed-race and minority donors.

Navarro adds that although donor campaigns rarely turn up a suitable match for the intended recipient, they have a ripple effect that certainly benefits the pool of patients.

The MatchDevan website states that a provisional, partial umbilical cord blood match for Devan has been found, and that it might be enough of a match, though they are still searching for a better match while waiting for confirmation.

To find out more about helping Devan, or to find out about registering to be a marrow donor or about umbilical cord donation, visit the MatchDevan website.

Related: Mother Details Efforts to Use Science to Save Her Dying Son in New Book

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.