Delia Fernandez is looking for her perfect match.
Not for love, but to stay alive.
The married mother of four, who was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in 2008, has waited nearly two years for a new bone marrow transplant.
Anti-cancer drugs didn’t work. Nor did a previous transplant.
Donor and recipient DNA have to be close for transplants to work.
So far, doctors scouring a registry of potential bone marrow donors for a match that will work and not cause new complications have come up empty-handed.
That’s why Fernandez, 38, a resident of Hiram, wants people to join the registry as potential donors, particularly African-Americans, Asians and Latinos. Minorities are underrepresented on Minneapolis-based Be The Match, a large registry of potential bone marrow donors.
More than 70 types of diseases, including leukemia and lymphoma, can be treated with bone marrow transplants.
She said the decision by “Good Morning America” co-anchor Robin Roberts to go public with her battle against myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare blood disease, helped raise awareness about the importance of bone marrow transplants, which replaces ill blood-forming stem cells with healthy ones. Roberts, who recently returned to work, received a bone marrow donation from her sister.
“This is not just for me but to help save other people’s lives,” said Fernandez, a logistics analyst for an Atlanta company.
For those needing such transplants there’s a 30-percent chance that a family member, particularly siblings with the same two parents, will be a full match.
The greatest risk for complications for recipients is graft-versus-host-disease, in which the donor’s immune system recognizes the patient’s cells as foreign and attacks them, said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society.
Fernandez’s siblings are only partial matches, so now she is looking outside her family.
People with the same ancestry are most likely to be matches. But genetics can be tricky. Latinos, for example, come from a very diverse genetic pool, which makes it more difficult to find a full match.
“You think of your genetics as a fingerprint,” said Dr. Scott Solomon, an Atlanta hematologist and oncologist and medical director of the Unrelated Donor Transplant Program at Northside Hospital. “Trying to find someone with the same fingerprint is very, very difficult.”
And there have been “some amazing matches” between people of different ancestries, Brawley said.“There have been good matches between individuals who appear to be European and individuals who appear to be black,” he said.
Be The Match has facilitated more than 55,000 transplants since 1987. It has more than 10.5 million potential donors in its registry.
“So the challenge is that we have to find more people of ethnic diversity to join the registry to help meet our needs,” said Tina Saadat, the Southeast recruitment and community development supervisor for Be The Match.
One problem donor-matching organizations face is that people think there are risks to donating, when there are few.
“I think a lot of it has to do with education on the topic,” said Fernandez. “There are still a lot of misconceptions about donating.”
Some of her older relatives think “they will take out an organ or that you will end up in a wheelchair.”
There are several ways to donate, including by bone marrow stem cell collection, a surgical outpatient procedure done in a hospital. Peripheral blood stem cells can also be given in an outpatient procedure similar to donating platelets or plasma. Blood stem cells are the most frequent donation, and fewer than 1 percent of PBSC donors experience a serious side effect from the process.
Dr. Al Soltan, president of Georgia Cancer Specialists, said transplant outcomes have improved over the years in part because of better patient-centered programs and better control of infections.
“We get to see many people benefit from the gift of life,” he said.
The optimum age to donate is between 18 and 44, but people generally stay in the registry until age 61, when they automatically roll off.
Solomon said finding a potential donor can be complicated. Once a donor joins a registry, he may not be identified as a potential match until years later. This means donors may have moved and can’t be found; may have developed health complications, may no longer be interested in donating or may have gone over the age requirements.
Adrienne Bradshaw has always had a close relationship with her younger sister, Sabrina Sawyer. They became even closer on July 22, 2010, when Sawyer donated peripheral blood stem cells to Bradshaw, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease in 2009.
The transplant is working.
“Every time I look at her (Sawyer) I know that’s why I’m living,” said Bradshaw, 39 of Conyers. “I feel blessed and thankful for that every day.”
Now Bradshaw celebrates three birthdays: hers, the anniversary of her transplant and her sister’s birthday “since I now have her DNA.”
Today, she volunteers at Be The Match and is a strong advocate, encouraging her friends and relatives to join the registry.
“You may never be called to be a match for someone,” she said. “But if you are, you could be saving a mother, a daughter, a father or a son.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.