Sunday, May 13, 2012

Nigerian on mission to help blacks survive cancer

Seun Adebiyi
A month after his 2009 graduation from Yale Law School, Seun Adebiyi learned he had not one but two lethal blood cancers and began an odyssey to find a bone-marrow donor. Mr. Adebiyi, 28, who came to this country from Nigeria as a child, made appeals through Yale, on radio stations, in a YouTube video and even on a trip to Nigeria to ask law students to volunteer.
But finally, his doctor called, saying that a Nigerian woman in this country had donated her baby’s umbilical cord blood to a “cord-blood bank” and that the stem cells in it were a close enough match. After his own marrow — the source of his cancers — was wiped out, those cells were infused into him at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He has been in remission since.
Now he is trying to repay that debt, with an effort that experts say may save the lives of both Nigerians and black Americans. In February, he helped start Nigeria’s national bone-marrow registry, the first in Africa outside South Africa. He is now raising money to start a cord-blood bank there.

Millions of Nigerians have blood cancers like leukemia or lymphoma, and about 4,000 black Americans die annually of them. Less than 20 percent of black Americans now find the perfect donor matches that could save their lives, while more than 70 percent of whites do. Without a registry and cord-blood bank, no Nigerians do.
“This is a slam-dunk, from my point of view,” Mr. Adebiyi said. “The U.S. registries are trying to figure out how to increase the population of minority donors; this is a solution they should be interested in.”
Becoming a donor is relatively simple nowadays; only a cheek swab is needed to test for a match. Donating rarely requires the painful hip punctures that used to be routine. Instead, an intravenous blood line runs through a cell separator after the donor takes drugs to push the stem cells into the bloodstream. The process is no more burdensome than dialysis, experts say.
But for African-Americans like Mr. Adebiyi, finding matches is particularly difficult. Blacks are less likely to register as donors; while blacks are 12.6 percent of the population, only 8 percent of registered donors are black.
“It’s lack of education about it, and mistrust of the medical system after scandals like Tuskegee,” said Shauna Melius, co-founder of Preserve Our Legacy, citing the Tuskegee, Ala., experiment in which government doctors recruited black farmers for research and let those with syphilis go untreated for decades. Her organization recruits donors at Harlem Hospital and through drives featuring black celebrities.

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Courtesy: The New York Times

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