International Student Association hosts stem cell registry drive

March 07, 2022
a stock photo of a young Black woman opening her mouth for someone to swab it
The MUSC International Student Association is hosting a stem cell registry drive.

The International Student Association at MUSC is hosting a three-day stem cell registry event, and it has a bold goal: It wants 300 people to sign up.

That would be 10 times as many people as signed up during ISA’s first stem cell registry event, which was held virtually in 2020. But this year’s organizer, Shahad Alghamdi, a third-year student in the College of Pharmacy, has confidence in the MUSC community. Various groups on campus, from Hollings Cancer Center to the College of Medicine’s Oncology Interest Group, have already shown support.

“I'm happy that people are responding and are excited to participate because I truly believe in the cause,” she said.

Alghamdi has not only signed up for the registry, but she has also become a donor, saving the life of a 57-year-old man in California. She donated peripheral blood stem cells, which are collected in a process similar to blood donation, and was in awe that the relatively small amount of blood could help someone diagnosed with leukemia, sickle cell disease, bone marrow disease or one of several immune and metabolic disorders.

“It was amazing how this small bag is saving somebody’s life. And I contributed to that,” she said.

Stem cell registry drive

Locations: The Horseshoe, The Greenway, ART upstairs lobby

Dates: 1-6 p.m. Tuesday; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday

Speaker: Ron Jacob, M.D., regional director of Be The Match, noon Tuesday, Bioengineering Room 112

ISA is partnering with Be The Match, the U.S.-based organization that runs the registry. Patients in need of a bone marrow transplant have only a 30% chance of matching with a family member. Thus, the registry exists to find matches among willing members of the public.

However, a patient’s chances of finding a match in the registry vary wildly. People are much more likely to match to someone of the same ethnicity. Because there are fewer minority potential donors in the registry, there are fewer chances for minority patients to match. According to Be The Match, white patients have a 79% chance of getting a match, while Black patients have a 29% chance.

Increasing the number of Black, Asian, Latino and Native American potential donors in the registry would increase the chances that patients with those ethnic backgrounds would find a match.

Alghamdi said this ethnic disparity is one reason that ISA became interested in this cause. The group also wants to normalize the idea of blood and tissue donations among cultures that don’t have as much exposure to the practice.

Be The Match regional director Ron Jacob, M.D., will be on campus Tuesday to speak about the health care disparity in stem cell matches. ISA will then hold sign-up sessions on the Horseshoe, on the Greenway and inside Ashley River Tower on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

The sign-up process is easy, Alghamdi said. She signed up in 2018, when she was relaxing in a park in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with her family. Be The Match had partnered with a hospital there, and a volunteer approached Alghamdi and asked if she would be interested in signing up. Alghamdi didn’t know much about stem cell donation at that point, but she agreed.

“They did the oral swab, and that’s it. It was very simple – it took two minutes,” she said.

“I couldn’t find any reason to say no. It's not invasive. It's very simple, and you’re saving somebody’s life.” 

Shahad Alghamdi
COP student and stem cell donor

She then forgot all about it until she received an email in May 2019, when she was studying in the U.S. The email said she was a potential match for a patient and invited her to do more testing to confirm this.

Alghamdi agreed to undergo the additional blood tests, and it was determined that she was a match. She said she appreciated that Be The Match always gave her the option to back out and didn’t pressure her. She thought carefully about the donation, but didn’t see any negatives.

“I couldn’t find any reason to say no. It's not invasive. It's very simple, and you’re saving somebody’s life,” she said.

She also appreciated that Be The Match made the process as easy as possible for her. At the time, Alghamdi didn’t drive, so Be The Match arranged an Uber for her from her home to the lab for blood tests; from the lab to a restaurant, since she had to fast before the blood tests; and from the restaurant to her home.

“I was amazed. I didn’t even ask for that. They are very considerate of any special situation,” she said.

Having already saved one life, Alghamdi wants to continue focusing on this patient population. She hopes to match to a hematology/oncology residency when she graduates in 2023. Right now, though, she’s focused on a successful registry event.

“I really hope that we will sign up 300 people in three days.”