SAM and Trinity Teen Team Up for Bone Marrow Donor Drives

Owen McMasters.

Owen McMasters.

Owen McMasters, a 15-year-old student at Trinity High School, is facing a battle most kids his age will never face. He’s fighting leukemia – again.

McMasters was first diagnosed in 2011. He managed to fight off the disease, but following a recent relapse, McMasters now needs a bone marrow transplant.

McMasters and his family have teamed up with Sharing America’s Marrow (SAM) to host bone marrow donor registration events at the Kornhauser Library courtyard on the University of Louisville Medical School campus Sept. 16 and 17 from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. and on the University of Louisville main campus in the Swain Student Activities Center Sept. 18 from 9 a.m.-3 p.m.

We spoke with Alex Kimura, director of Sharing America’s Marrow, about McMaster’s condition, the upcoming donor drive, and how signing up as a blood marrow donor can save a life.

THE VOICE-TRIBUNE: Please tell us about Owen’s struggle and how he is currently doing. Has he found a donor yet, and if not, is it possible he could find one at the upcoming drives?

ALEX KIMURA: Owen McMasters was diagnosed in November of 2011 when he was 12 years old with T-cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Owen had nine months of intense chemotherapy and then had been managing his blood cancer until recently, when a relapse put him back in the hospital. Owen, a 15-year-old sophomore at Trinity High School in Louisville, is now going through chemotherapy again, but now his doctors at Kosair Children’s Hospital think that a bone marrow transplant is needed to cure him of his disease.

Siblings have a 25 percent chance of being a bone marrow donor match because matches are made based on DNA tissue types, but unfortunately neither of Owen’s two brothers are matches. A match for Owen or for one of the thousands of other blood cancer patients who are looking for a donor could be found at any of the upcoming bone marrow donor drives in the Louisville area. Donors who register are signing up to be a potential donor for ANY patient in need of transplant, including but not limited to Owen.

V-T: What part does healthy bone marrow play in fighting leukemia and other blood cancers?

KIMURA: Leukemia and other blood cancers signify that the body’s bone marrow is failing. The bone marrow is made up of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets, which are the cells that produce oxygen, fight infection, and help with clotting, respectively.

When bone marrow is not healthy, the risk of infection and bleeding multiply. A bone marrow transplant from a person who has normally functioning bone marrow is often the best treatment for diseases like Owen’s. That is why it is crucial to have people on the registry who are willing to donate their healthy marrow to a patient in need.

V-T: Give us an idea of the scope of blood cancer and the need for marrow donors.

KIMURA: Even though there are 24 million people worldwide listed on the registry, over half of all patients cannot find a matching donor. Again, matches are so rare to find because they are based on DNA. Blood cancer is the third-leading cause of all cancer deaths and kills more children in the U.S. than any other disease. Every four minutes, someone is diagnosed with blood cancer, and every 10 minutes, someone dies of blood cancer. Fourteen thousand patients a year have to look to a stranger to save their life, but less than 7,000 actually find the match they need.

V-T: Tell us about the sign-up process. How likely is someone who signs up for the donor list to be called on to donate?

KIMURA: To join the donor registry, you must be between the ages of 18 and 55, in general good health and willing to donate to any patient in need. To join the registry, you are asked to complete a short registration and consent form and then you will swab the inside of your cheek with a cotton-tipped swab. The cells collected from this swab are then tested for tissue type. Your data is then entered into the National Marrow Donor Program registry in anonymous form, so doctors can search for a donor for their patients.

If you are called to be a bone marrow donor, that means you could potentially be the one person in the world who could save that patient’s life.

There are two ways you could be asked to donate. Over 80 percent of donations are done through a Peripheral Blood Stem Cell donation, which is a nonsurgical procedure similar to donating plasma. If a bone marrow donation is needed, donors have an outpatient surgical procedure under general anesthesia, so no pain is experienced during the marrow extraction. Donors might feel sore for a few days in exchange for giving a patient a second chance at life.

One in 500 people who sign up to the donor registry will donate marrow or stem cells to a patient.

V-T: Is someone wants to sign up, but would be unable to make the donor drive days, is there another way to sign up?

KIMURA: They can visit Delete Blood Cancer’s website, and sign up online.

For more information, visit their website at