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University of Missouri

Swab a Cheek, Save a Life

Alumna adds bone marrow drive to Homecoming tradition.

Qtips

At least 1,000 people with blood cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma, die annually because they can’t find a matching bone marrow donor, according to the Institute for Justice (IJ). The Mizzou family is rising to the challenge by making a bone marrow drive a standard at Homecoming.

Olivia Maniaci, BS BA ’11, of Washington, Missouri, helps establish bone marrow registration drives across the region for the nonprofit Delete Blood Cancer. Last year, she started coordinating Mizzou’s annual Homecoming drive, which began in 2007. During the 2013 drive, volunteers registered 1,644 people, the third-largest college drive the organization has done.

Unlike blood drives, bone marrow drives collect information. Donors complete a questionnaire and have their cheek swabbed. The DNA from the cheek swabs is analyzed for 10 genetic markers that determine compatibility for transplant, and the information is placed on a bone marrow registry. Then the waiting begins. Donors remain on the registry until they turn 61, so an 18-year-old freshman could wait more than 40 years for the chance to save someone’s life.

Bone marrow donation can be as simple as taking blood from one arm, removing the stem cells and returning the blood to the other arm. A more invasive method takes liquid marrow from the pelvic bone using a special syringe.

This year, 133,000 Americans will be diagnosed with a serious blood disease that could require a bone marrow transplant, according to IJ. Transplants are needed after chemotherapy or radiation destroys a person’s own diseased bone marrow. However, finding a suitable match is exceptionally difficult. Thirty percent of patients find a donor within their families, but 70 percent must count on the kindness of strangers. Despite a registry of millions, Delete Blood Cancer says 60 percent of patients never receive a transplant.

Maniaci wants to add 2,000 Tigers to the registry this year. Her grand goal is to top Ohio State’s single-drive record of 2,500 new registrants. Of the 7,500 MU students registered to date, 58 have donated bone marrow, Maniaci says.

Delete Blood Cancer has made a big push onto college campuses in part because of students’ enthusiasm.

“So many people, when you tell them about being a bone marrow donor, their eyes get wide, and they run away,” Maniaci says.“You still get some of that at college campuses, but often they say, ‘Of course. Why wouldn’t I do that?’ ”