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Lara Casalotti, the 24-year-old who started an international movement for stem cell registration after she was diagnosed with leukemia, has found a match with an anonymous stem cell donor and is slated to receive a marrow transplant in March.
The odds of finding a matching donor were stacked against her. None of her family members were matches, and she is of mixed race. Ethnic minorities are heavily underrepresented in bone marrow registries, with mixed race patients the least likely to find a match.
“It’s kind of incredible to think that this person is one in 25 million,” Casalotti said in a video thanking her supporters.
"The whole family is thrilled to hear this good news," Sujitpan Lamsam, Casalotti's aunt, told NBC News. "We are cautiously optimistic since we know that a transplant is an extremely serious medical procedure - both the donor and Lara have to stay healthy until the transplant date in early March - but we are taking this moment to rejoice the major hurdle overcome."
Casalotti’s family began the #Match4Lara campaign not only to find a match for Casalotti, but also to diversify bone marrow registries, which have historically seen a low number of ethnic minority donors. Her family members organized donor drives in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Asia, and the campaign went viral online, with celebrities such as J.K. Rowling, Mark Wahlberg, Jay Sean, and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron championing her cause.
“I can’t tell you how many patients that are mixed race go without finding a match,” Carol Gillespie, executive director of the Asian American Donor Program, told NBC News. “This is truly wonderful. It really gives hope to a lot of mixed-race patients. To me, it tells us that diversifying the registry is working.”
Gillespie also noted that the Match4Lara campaign has “absolutely” driven an increase in the number of ethnic minority donors, with a particular emphasis in the multi-ethnic community. “I think with all the drives around the country, we will easily see an increase of 5,000 donors or more in the United States,” she said.
The effect of Casalotti’s campaign has been even larger in the U.K., where the national registry saw an “unprecedented spike of new donors” from black, Asian, ethnic minority, and mixed race backgrounds, according to Anthony Nolan, a non-profit organization in the U.K. The organization's website noted that Lara’s family estimates the number of people joining a stem cell registry around the world because of the campaign to be “well in excess of 20,000.”
Casalotti hopes that the movement doesn't stop with her match. On Facebook, the campaign reminded followers that "over 37,000 people (including many children and young adults) are still in need of a donor."
The Match4Lara campaign will continue the momentum to get people registered with donor drives across universities in the U.S. According to Lamsam, drives will be held at Stanford, the University of Washington, the Claremont Colleges, Harvard, and MIT in the month of February alone.
"We are happy to see that the campaign continues to inspire people worldwide," Lamsam said. "Anthony Nolan, the UK registry, who saw a 277% rise in registered stem cell donors during the month between Jan 2-Feb2, said that they have seen another major spike in the 2 days after Lara announced her match."
For Lara, a graduate student passionate about human rights, this was always a goal of the campaign.
"The Match4Lara campaign has alway[s] been about finding a match for Lara and expanding and diversifying the Registry," Lamsam said. "Lara would be thrilled if her legacy was not just her own recovery, but also to have inspired ten of thousands of people to join the Bone Marrow Registries worldwide."