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Be the Match is looking for more ethnically diverse donors to help patients with blood cancers and diseases

In Communities that KARE, a 9-year-old who needs a blood stem cell transplant is traveling the country to find donors, not just for him but for others too.

BLOOMINGTON, Minnesota — Nine-year-old Alfredo Torres has a big appetite for food, Chicago Bulls basketball, and music. He loves to wrestle and play soccer with his cousins and run.

But what sets this 4th grader from Chicago apart from other kids his age is that he lives with a blood disorder and needs a blood stem cell transplant.

A blood stem cell transplant replaces a patient's unhealthy blood-forming cells with healthy ones from their donor. The cells used in transplants come from peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC), marrow, and umbilical cord blood. A successful transplant can cure or treat more than 75 diseases, including leukemia and lymphoma, aplastic anemia, sickle cell, and immune-deficiency disorders. 

Alfredo and his mom Natalia Torres traveled to Minnesota to raise awareness for Be the Match, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit supporting patients battling blood cancers and disorders.

"He's full of life. He wants to live," said Torres. "He gets infections; he gets sick real quick because his immune system is suppressed." 

Be the Match runs a national registry of potential donors for bone marrow and blood stem transplants. They also search international registries with access to more than 39 million people.

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Still, some patients have a hard time finding a match. "We're searching for [a] possible donor from a Hispanic donor because we're Hispanics," said Torres.

The likelihood of finding a matching donor ranges from 29% to 70%, depending on ethnic background. "When we look across the spectrum, our lowest chance of finding a match is for Black and African American patients at 29%," explained Alex Mensing, director of benefactor engagement for Be the Match. "Really, the answer to that is more diverse registry members joining."

Credit: Be the Match

The Mall of America is joining the cause by partnering with Be the Match for a unique campaign called 30,000 lifesavers.

Shoppers can join the registry at on-site events throughout the year or make a financial donation. "We fully fund patient assistance for our patients and their families. As everybody knows, cancer treatment, [and] blood disease treatment is not cheap," said Mensing.

Every dollar Be the Match raises helps more patients afford transplants, adds potential blood stem cell donors to the registry, and funds research. In 2021, Be The Match provided $6.1 million in patient assistance to 2,600 families.

The burden is heavy for families, and instead of just waiting for a call, the Torres family calls for action. "We just need to raise awareness for these patients in need." 

Adults can donate one of two ways. First, about 85% of the time, a patient's doctor requests a PBSC donation, a non-surgical, outpatient procedure similar to donating platelets or plasma. 

About 15% of the time, a patient's doctor requests marrow, a surgical, outpatient procedure at a hospital. General or regional anesthesia is always used.

Adults between the ages of 18-40 who meet health guidelines can join the Be The Match Registry for no cost by visiting BeTheMatch.org. Registration involves completing a health history form and giving a swab of cheek cells. People between 18 and 35 are most urgently needed since they are requested by transplant doctors most often, and research shows that these donors provide the best chance for transplant success.

Another way Be the Match helps patients is by organizing couriers who hand-deliver the donated cells, transported as quickly and safely as possible to a patient in need – across the country and the world. That life-saving transport happens around 15 times a day.

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