By Olga Pazukha: The fall of 2012 marked Paul Uche’s final year studying Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The 22-year-old Nigerian Canadian was in for a year of hard work, determination and perseverance. Little did he know that he would have to double his efforts just to get through most days of that year.
In November 2012, Paul was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a blood cancer where the bone marrow produces too many white blood cells. After his diagnosis, Paul started chemotherapy treatments while still maintaining a full course load and finishing his degree.
Initially, the treatments worked, but in August 2013 the cancer returned, bringing Paul back to Toronto to be closer to his family. Now, Paul’s only chance of beating his illness is a stem cell transplant that will replace the diseased cells in his bone marrow and work to create new healthy blood cells.
Stem cells are immature blood cells that can be found in the bone marrow, circulating in the blood or in the umbilical cord blood when a baby is born. Stem cells have the ability to become red blood cells, white blood cells or platelets, which is the reason they are so important in treating blood cancers like leukemia.
Patients like Paul have a 25% chance of finding a stem cell donor within their family, the rest rely on unrelated donors registered with the Canadian Blood Services’ OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network in Canada, or other stem cell registries around the world. Unfortunately, Paul does not have a match within his family and has turned to OneMatch to find his donor.
Matching between patients and donors is genetic, which means patients are most likely to find their donor within a similar ethnic group. Being African Canadian makes Paul’s search for a match more difficult as only 1% of registrants on the OneMatch Network are African Canadians. More donors of African and Caribbean descent are needed for patients like Paul, who is still searching for his hero, his one match.
One of the biggest health issues affecting the African and Caribbean Canadian populations is sickle cell disease, and illness that affects oxygen transfer in the blood and affects primarily those of African or Caribbean heritage. Regular blood transfusions and stem cell transplantations are two ways to help patients with sickle cell. Because of the unique markers found in African and Caribbean blood and stem cells, people of that heritage are most needed as donors. It is up to the African and Caribbean community in Canada to unite and help their own community survive and thrive. Becoming a donor can make the difference of seeing a child grown up or keeping a parent enjoying a long life with their children.
Paul Uche’s family is just one of the many who put their hope and faith in the strength of the African Canadian community to help save Paul’s life. The Canadian Blood Services OneMatch team continues to search for a match in Canada, and around the world, as OneMatch is part of an international network of registries. Donors who are most needed are young men aged 17-35. Doctors consider young men optimal for stem cell donation because they can lessen the chances of complications post-transplant.
As part of his treatment, Paul is also receiving blood and blood products to maintain his health as the search for his match continues. Canadian Blood Services manages the national blood supply in the country and helps patients like Paul on the road to recovery. Those eligible to donate blood can do so every 56 days at a local blood donor clinic.
Another way to help patients like Paul, and especially those of diverse backgrounds, will soon be available in Canada. Cord blood, collected from the umbilical cord after a baby is born, is a rich source of stem cells that are more adaptable to help patients. Canadian Blood Services is working to build a national public cord blood bank through the campaign For All Canadians – a fundraising initiative that will bring another option of a stem cell match for patients like Paul. Currently, mothers in Ottawa can already donate their babies’ cord blood to help patients, while other collection sites in Brampton, ON (part of greater Toronto), Edmonton, AB and Vancouver, BC will become operational in 2014. Soon mothers across the country will be able to give life and the gift of renewed life to patients in need by donating their baby’s cord blood.
With blood donation, and stem cell donation from adult donors or cord blood, Canadian Blood Services understands that community awareness and engagement is key to helping patients in need. Our communities are filled with heroes able to help save the lives of our siblings, parents, and friends simply by donating blood, signing up as a stem cell donor with OneMatch or considering donating cord blood.
Today, Paul, like more than 40 other African Canadians and nearly 1,000 Canadian patients are relying on the generosity of a stranger to return back to healthy, happy lives. Will you be their hero?
To learn more about becoming a stem cell donor, please go to www.onematch.ca.
To learn more about your local blood donor clinic, please go to www.blood.ca
To learn more about the building of the national public cord blood bank and the campaign For All Canadians, please go to www.blood.ca/cordblood.