Western University student hosts stem cell drive to ethnically diversify Canada's blood supply

Lauren Sano, 20, is president of Western's stem cell club. She's running a drive on Nov. 24 and 25 to increase the number of ethnically diverse donors in Canada's blood supply registry. (Submitted by Lauren Sano - image credit)
Lauren Sano, 20, is president of Western's stem cell club. She's running a drive on Nov. 24 and 25 to increase the number of ethnically diverse donors in Canada's blood supply registry. (Submitted by Lauren Sano - image credit)

Lauren Sano calls a stem cell transplant the "gift of life" - one that her father Mark was in desperate need of after being diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia in 2019. Unable to find a full-match, Mark lost his battle to cancer 18 months later.

So when Sano read a CBC News story from July about the Prajapati family in Brampton, Ont., who are in the same situation with their twin toddlers, she decided to host a stem cell drive at Western University - where she's a student, in hopes of helping them out.

Misha and Zoey Prajapati were seven months old when they were diagnosed with chronic granulomatous disease (CGD), making the toddlers highly susceptible to frequent and potentially life-threatening bacterial and fungal infections. The only cure is through a stem cell transplant.

"I felt super sad for these twins," Sano said. "But I also felt that there is something that can be done in this situation.  There's a need for people to join the registry and really make this known."

According to Canadian Blood Services (CBS), a patient's best hope for a match is with someone of the same ethnic or ancestral background as them. Currently, the registry is made up of 66 per cent Caucasian donors. Only seven per cent are south Asian - which is what the twins require.

There's a shortage of donors from ethnically diverse backgrounds, which adds to the 1,000 Canadians who are on the list waiting for a stem cell match, said Chris van Doorn of CBS.

"Canada's becoming more diverse and we need to match the registry to reflect that, so we've been doing lots of work with patients in diverse communities to get more people registered," he said.

Talia Ricci/CBC
Talia Ricci/CBC

University age is 'prime time' to donate

Sano started Western's stem cell club shortly after her dad's death. Upon speaking to many student groups at her university, Sano was not surprised to hear that they were unaware of how lifesaving a stem cell transplant can be, especially among ethnic minorities, she said.

"It was very hard for me to lose my father to leukemia but the best thing I got from it was sharing an experience that I had to go through so other people don't have to suffer as much."

Eligible donors must be between the ages of 17 and 35 and in good health. The process takes less than 10 minutes and requires the inside of one's cheek to be swabbed to collect their DNA for it to be send to CBS, van Doorn said.

For Sano, this made Western the best place to recruit young, ethnically diverse donors.

"It's a prime age where this message can be shared and if healthy people have the ability to donate blood or anything with very little side effects, then it's something that should at least be made aware of at places like the campus," she said.

Submitted by Lauren Sano
Submitted by Lauren Sano

Two ways to donate are: peripheral blood donation in which blood is drawn from one arm, stem cells are collected, and the remaining components are returned to the donor. The second is through a surgical bone marrow transplant, which a lot less common, van Doorn said.

"It's pretty much one of the only ways you can directly save someone's life and it's so easy, just a simple blood donation that can directly impact somebody," he said.

"If you do get selected, you're probably the only person in the world who matches that patient so it's really important."

The twins' parents, Sanjay and Nipa were immensely grateful when they heard of Sano's drive.

"It's very heartwarming that there are people out there who are willing to commit their time to help our girls," Sanjay said. "All it takes is one match and so we're optimistic and in this case that's all you really can be."

The drive takes place on Nov. 24 and 25 on Western's campus. More information can be found online.