Students get swabbed for stem cell database

Stem cell and marrow network visits Dal to find donors

Hailu Mulatu, coordinator of donor management from OneMatch came to Dal Tuesday in hopes of gathering new potential donors. (Photo: Kelsey Power)

Some people spend their entire lives searching for their perfect match – but most of the time this isn’t a life or death situation.

For those in need of new stem cells, finding the specific match of genetic markers similar to their own could mean a second chance at life.

For the third time in three years, OneMatch, a Canadian stem cell and marrow network, visited Dalhousie University’s campus this Tuesday. Organizers planted themselves in the Dalhousie Student Union Building for the daylong Get Swabbed event in an effort to attract potential new donors.

Somewhat successful, the campaign attracted 70 students to become registered – a figure shy of the day’s 100-person goal.

Young cells are more successful at replicating. Most participants were in their late teens. About half were male and there was a fair number of ethnically diverse donors – all attributes the network is in need of. Men have turned out to be more appealing donors due to differences in body size (their larger frame producing more stem cells) as well as their increased resistance to Cytomegalovirus Infection. As well, there is a severe shortage of representation among black and aboriginal donors in the databank. Organizers are seeking these individuals specifically because a match must be the same ethnicity as the donor, in terms of genetics.

All in all, the event was about raising awareness.

“This campaign is managed and run by student champions from A to Z normally,” said Hailu Mulatu, co-ordinator of donor management. “This is our way of empowering students to make a difference in the lives of Canadians.”

But this time around, Brenda Smart, administrative staff in the School for Resource and Environmental Studies organized this event, after becoming personally attached to the cause.

“I found out about OneMatch through my family because my nephew was in need of a transplant,” she says. “We always knew that probably someday he would need one and about a year-and-a-half ago, the doctor said they needed to start looking more actively.”

Brenda Smart, organizer for “Get Swabbed” says, “It’s about making people aware that this organization exists.” (Photo: Kelsey Power)

A member of a large family, Smart was shocked to learn that a genetic match could be found within immediate family only 25 per cent of the time. “Immediate family” consists of siblings, and parents. Other relatives stand the same chances of being a match as a perfect stranger. This is the reason why donors who sign up to support OneMatch as a potential donor agree to donate to any patient in need – not only those they might intimately know.

“The other 75 per cent of the time you are looking at someone to be a match for you, it’s like we’re looking at a pool of potential donors,” Mulatu said.

So increasing the number of people in the database increases everyone’s potential to find a match. The procedure at this point is simple: a swab of a Q-tip of the inside of your mouth.

“Blood donation is good as well, but it sounds like (swabbing) is a little more specific,” said Jessica Cosham, a 24-year-old environmental studies master’s student, who acted as a volunteer for the event after signing up for OneMatch three years ago.  “If they don’t find a match they don’t have a match.”

Close to 1,000 people in Canada are currently searching for a stem cell match.

“We are looking at the unit genetic markers that we inherit from our parents, our grandparents and our ancestors – essentially that are unique to all of us,” said Mulatu.

He explains that these genetic markers are Human Leukocyte Antigens, found on the proteins of white blood cells, which we acquire randomly at birth. Blessed with a set of 10, we receive half from our mother’s makeup and half from our father. This is a random distribution of their own makeup, which is why even siblings are not completely the same.

“Matching the donor and the patient is a very difficult task,” he said.

Brenda Smart now knows. With 325,000 Canadians contributing to an international database of 21 million people that Canadians seeking new cells have access to – her nephew miraculously found one match, which happened to fall through. Following this news, his father became an imperfect donor in the interest of time.

For those who missed the opportunity, and are interested in making a donation, anyone can register online at

Rebecca Aucoin joined OneMatch today because of a personal connection to the cause. Her cousin was diagnosed with leukemia when she was 12, having two bone marrow transplants before passing away three-years-ago. “I want to be able to help someone else the way her donors helped her.” (Photo: Kelsey Power)
Tim Cashion is a 22- year-old Masters of Environmental Studies student who has been in OneMatch’s database for two years now. “The people that need donations need them for very specific and often very life threatening conditions that they have, so if I can extend their life by five or ten years by giving a donation that would be a little bit of pain for me for a day or a couple weeks which is fine.” (Photo: Kelsey Power)
Liam Crouse is a 19-year-old political science student who was just passing by: “I saw the table and figured I don’t use my bone marrow most of the time, I have some to spare if someone needs it.” (Photo: Kelsey Power)