The stem-cell struggle: Multiracial patients’ hunt for a match
2016/11/16 Leave a comment
As someone who has undergone this gruelling treatment, and who did not have the same challenges in finding a donor (mine was from Germany), important to encourage minorities to consider being a donor to improve the chances of those who need this treatment:
Hundreds of Canadians are waiting for stem-cell transplants, but only half of them will find a donor, according to Canadian Blood Services. For multiracial patients, the chances of finding a match are infinitely smaller. As Vancouver filmmaker Jeff Chiba Stearns discovers in his new documentary Mixed Match, it is akin to finding a needle in a haystack or winning the lottery.
Stem cells, which are typically collected from blood or bone marrow, are cells that can develop into other types of blood cells, including the white blood cells that make up one’s immune system. For those with blood disorders and cancers, such as leukemia, a stem-cell transplant can be life-saving.
For Mixed Match, which is showing at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival on Nov. 15, Chiba Stearns spent six years filming multiracial recipients, donors and families who’ve searched the world over for a match. The Globe spoke with Chiba Stearns about why patients’ chances of survival are linked to their lineage.
Why is it so hard for people of mixed race to find suitable donors?
A lot of people think of it as blood. You know, like, I have type O-negative blood. But this has to do with your genetic background, what you would call a “genetic twin.” Basically, when you’re trying to find your genetic twin, a lot of times, it’s someone who has similar ancestry, so someone who comes from the same place you came from because that would mean your immune systems would be very similar.
So, say, in Japan, which is a very homogeneous country, they have a very small pool of people in their registry, but you can still find a match most of the time. What happens when we start mixing is our genetics get a little more complex.
….Why do some people object to recruiting donors by specific ethnic groups?
When it comes to race and ethnicity, the idea of filling out the box and categories can be a little challenging to some people because maybe they don’t want to be labelled or put in boxes.
But at the same time, this is how we categorize people because we need to know, if I am part Japanese and part European, where do we need to start looking? Do we look in Japan’s registries? Do we look overseas?
And sometimes these categories may not be as accurate as people think because it’s self-identified race and identity. We don’t always know. Sometimes it opens up skeletons in the closet, like people may not have realized their great-grandma was Korean, for example, and nobody talked about that.
The idea of race in medicine is sometimes controversial because there have been drugs targeted specifically to African-Americans. Or when people say cystic fibrosis is mainly a “white people” disease, or certain types of diseases are more common in certain races, I think that’s when you get racial scholars coming up in arms because it’s dividing people by race.
It gets complicated, though. As you showed in your documentary, someone with Latino heritage might end up being a good match for someone who’s Asian.
This is why it’s tricky because we often say, if you’re Chinese, you need to find another Chinese donor. But there are rare cases, where, let’s say, an African-American person has donated to someone who’s Caucasian. It may not be a perfect match, and that’s probably what’s happening: These probably aren’t perfect matches.
That’s why I think we always encourage anybody and everyone to sign up. And because registries ask for self-identified race, sometimes you just don’t know whether there’s some kind of mixing in one’s heritage.