Every year, thousand people with blood cancers fail to receive the bone marrow transplants they desperately need to survive.
The shortage of bone marrow donors is so acute that last year only about half of the 12,000 patients requesting a donor received one. A key problem is that doctors find it hard to convince younger people — whose blood cells are better able to fight cancer — to join the registry of donors.
With that in mind, nearly two dozen college students from across the nation came to Minneapolis this week to learn new strategies that could help persuade people their age to become bone marrow donors.
During a three-day "boot camp" run by Be the Match, a Minneapolis nonprofit that keeps a national list of willing donors, they heard from a young person who received a life-saving transplant and others who had lost loved ones.
"I was diagnosed almost seven years ago with MDS, myelodysplastic syndrome," said 27-year-old Rachael Neigart of Be the Match's Gulf Coast Marrow Donor Program. "The registry saved my life."
"Truly the biggest obstacle we face is misinformation or myths surrounding what it is that we do."
The opportunity to save lives is a big motivation for the group of enthusiastic college bone marrow recruiters. They know that bone marrow transplants are an important tool in the battle against blood cancers and transplants from younger donors like them lead to better results.
Some of their stories are tragic. Some are uplifting. They're all compelling. But it takes time to tell them — something most busy college students don't feel they can spare when they're rushing past an information table on their way to class.
So how does a savvy bone marrow recruiter get students' attention?
"One of our group members dressed up as Cutie the Q-tip," said Greta Diers, a 21-year-old student at the University of Minnesota. That simple gimmick, she said, made students pause at her bone marrow registration booth.
"They saw this guy dressed up ridiculously and maybe stopped just long enough to hear what we had to say," Diers said.
Cutie the Q-tip helped the U of M chapter sign up 400 donors during its February drive. Already three of them have been identified as a good match to help a blood cancer patient.
Diers said bone marrow donation should be an easy sell, but it's not.
"Truly the biggest obstacle we face is misinformation or myths surrounding what it is that we do," she said. "You know all you have to do is swab your cheek and be willing to save someone's life if you're called."
At other schools across the country students say they have tried to interest potential donors in the cause by organizing sky diving trips, dating games and music nights.
Most donors who are called can expect to invest between 20 to 30 hours of their time over four to six weeks, if their bone marrow or stem cells are matched with a patient in need. While that may not sound like a lot of time, it can be a deterrent for busy college students.
Fear is another reason some students are resistant, said Madison Hall, a 21-year-old student from Auburn University in Alabama. While most donors simply have to give blood, about a quarter of donations require the surgical removal of bone marrow.
"A lot of people think it's the most painful thing in the world to donate," Hall said. "It's hard to convince people it isn't that painful."
A lot is riding on how student recruiters handle these concerns.
Nadya Dutchin, a national account executive with Be the Match, said young donors are key to the success of blood cancer patients and the program.
"The cells that are coming from younger people are just much more robust," Dutchin said. "And they're able to do a better job in the patient."
New research suggests that a patient's chances of surviving improve by as much as one third when the donor is young. Dutchin said the optimal donor age is 18 to 25.
The national registry, created more than two decades ago, has 10.5 million willing bone marrow donors. But even with that many people, Dutchin said, the donor pool doesn't contain all of the genetic combinations that are needed to match everyone.
The need is particularly great, she said, in ethnic communities. Caucasians have a 93 percent chance of finding a match in the registry, while African-Americans only have a 66 percent chance of finding a match.
"So [for] African-Americans and Asians, people who are multiracial, it's very difficult to find matches for those groups," she said.
By 2015, Be the Match aims to match all of its blood cancer patients with a donor. The organization's recruiting on college and university campuses is a big part of its strategy to meet that goal.