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Cheek swabs may help save lives

Published: Tuesday, March 11 2014 11:32 p.m. MDT

Debbie Nelson swabs her cheek to register for a bone marrow match as Granger Medical Clinic hosts a bone marrow donor registry drive in West Valley City, Tuesday, March 11, 2014.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

WEST VALLEY CITY — Heroes sometimes come from unlikely places.

Ethan VanLeuven's hero came in the form of his 21-month-old brother Blake.

Ethan, 4, has been a cancer patient for most of his life. His initial diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia came in September of 2011. The cancer that was in remission returned in June. His family soon found out that he would need a bone marrow transplant to survive.

In January, Ethan received that transplant from his brother. Siblings have a 25 percent chance of generating a successful bone marrow match.

On Tuesday, Granger Medical Clinic, Be the Match and the American Childhood Cancer Organization held a bone marrow donor drive to help gather potential donors for those who do not find a donor match within their family. The sample collection process is quick, free and may be a lifesaver.

"Really, it's their chance to be a hero. It's their chance to save someone's life," said Jennifer VanLeuven, the boys' mother.

About 20,000 people in the United States needed a bone marrow or umbilical cord transplant in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Of these, only seven out of 10 patients find a match within their families.

To gather the sample, volunteers at the Granger clinic used cotton swabs to collect samples of cheek cells from potential donors. The samples were sent on for testing and the potential donors' name put on an international registry.

"Very simple. Very simple. I'm done," Erin Lewis said, in what she estimated was about five minutes total at the clinic drive.

Forty-nine people were added to the registry Tuesday before volunteers ran out of supplies. Additional donors were sent to another bone marrow drive in Draper.

The current registry has 9 million members.

Bone marrow transplants help those who are diagnosed with blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma.

Be the Match seeks volunteers between ages 18 and 44 to donate. Their names will remain on the registry until they are 61.

Donors have a 1 in 540 chance of donating bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells to a patient. Most donors — 76 percent — give through a process similar to platelet donation, according to Trina Brajkovich, National Marrow Donor Project community engagement representative.

The other 24 percent of the time, marrow is taken out of the hip while a patient is under general anesthesia.

Those who wish to donate can register online at bethematch.org. They will be sent a kit in which they can retrieve samples from their own cheek and mail the samples in. Materials and postage are free. They will be contacted if they are a positive match.

Email: wevans@deseretnews.com, Twitter: whitevs7

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