More Chinese join Canada’s stem-cell registry to donate
Mai Duong is a 34-year-old Montreal resident and a leukemia patient in desperate need of a stem-cell transplant. Duong, who is Vietnamese and the mother of a 4-year-old girl, Alice, created a video in which she pleaded for a donor and put it on social media in Canada.
In many cases, Duong and other Asians, including Chinese, who suffer from leukemia and other blood diseases, find it extremely difficult to have a life-saving stem-cell transplant because of a critical shortage of donors of Asian descent.
Recognizing that patients from the Chinese community were far less likely to receive such a transplant due to the lack of matching donors, in 2008 Toronto resident Susan Go, who is of Chinese descent, founded the Other Half – Chinese Stem Cell Initiative.
“Her goal was to raise awareness in the Chinese community of this life-saving medical technique,” said Jodi Cheng, development and communications manager for the Go’s initiative.
goal was to raise awareness in the Chinese community of this life-saving medical technique.” JODI CHENG DEVELOPMENT AND COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER FOR THE GO’S INITIATIVE
“She knew the Chinese community was underrepresented in the Canadian registry and was determined to change this.”
A stem cell transplant — also called a blood or marrow transplant — is the injection of healthy stem cells into a body to replace damaged or diseased stem cells. Donor and recipient stem cells must be a close match for a successful transplant, which means patients are more likely to find a match within their own ethnic background.
“Only about 25 to 30 percent of those in need of a transplant find a successful match from their own family members. Seventy to 75 percent must search for a match among the public,” said Dr Eric Chen, a medical oncologist with the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto.
Many Chinese are reluctant to be tested and become registered donors.
“Part of it relates to our culture,” said Cheng. “It’s not in our nature to discuss bad things and in many cases, it is considered shameful to mention it to others. We need to realize that cancer can happen to anyone,” she added.
“There are multiple reasons for a lack of Chinese donors. In traditional Chinese culture, blood is considered a vital life source and losing even a small amount is seen by many as bad for their health. And that means blood donations are not encouraged,” noted Chen.
The process to determine if someone is a potential donor is not complicated, according to Cheng. “We begin by taking some cells from the walls of your mouth using a cotton swab. That information is then sent to a lab for what is called genetic typing.”
A donor’s stem cells must have similar genetic markers as the recipient. These markers are called human leukocyte antigens or HLAs.
“The closer the match, the less likely the body will reject the transplanted cells,” said Chen.
Cheng said the Other Half — Chinese Stem Cell Initiative is making progress in getting more Chinese donors.
“Back in 2008, the number of Chinese donors in the Canadian registry (OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network) was about 2,100 or less than1 percent of registrants. By June of this year, the number of Chinese donors was over 25,000, representing about 7 percent of Canadian registrants,” she said. The Canadian registry includes Asians and all other ethnic groups.
Stem cell transplants have been around since the 1960s. Chen said the success rate for transplants is good and that the majority of patients will be cured. “I think once members of the Chinese community become aware of this and also realize that the procedure of collecting stem cells is painless, we will get more donors.”
As of July 31, Mai Duong was still waiting for a suitable donor.