UR Stem Cell Club helps build diverse database of donors

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Young people holding pamphlets and cotton swabs in front of a Stem Cell registration drive poster. Sylvia Okonofua

More racialized donors needed

by hammad ali, Contributor

Stem cell research is often in the news, as are campaigns to find stem cell donors. There are actually stem cell clubs all over Canada that are geared towards raising awareness, and collecting stem cell donations. You may have seen one in our very own University of Regina campus, setting up their table at Riddell Centre and collecting swabs. Founding President, Sylvia Okonofua, told us more about the UR Stem Cell club.

“There are stem cell clubs all over Canada, and we are essentially the Regina chapter and were founded in 2016. Most of the local chapters are tied to a university, just like the one here at the U of R. This may be because it is easier to recruit interested members in college campuses,” said Okonofua. She also added that there used to be a chapter at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, but at present they are the only active stem cell club in Saskatchewan.

When asked if this means that membership to the stem cell club is restricted to college students, Okonofua clarified, “Membership is open to anyone who gets in touch and wants to be involved. We are very active on social media and will respond promptly to questions about how to be more involved.”

The primary goal of the stem cell club is to register Canadians as stem cell donors.

“When doing our collection drives, anyone interested to donate has to go through a pretty rigorous list of requirements and provide us their informed consent. The requirements include being between 17 to 35 years old, in good general health, willing to donate to anybody who is a match, and they must have a valid health card. It does not even need to be a Saskatchewan health card,” said Okonofua. People with known autoimmune conditions or other chronic illnesses might not be able to donate.

One of the current goals of the UR Stem Cell club is to ensure a more genetically diverse pool of donors. At present, 75 per cent of the donors in the national registry are of Caucasian descent. This vastly decreases the likelihood of finding a match for members of other ethnic groups. In fact, they just did a virtual donor drive all of February for Black History Month, trying to engage more donors of African-American descent.

When asked what is done with donations collected during a typical on-campus event, Okonofua said “immediately after the event, we use FedEx to send off all donations to Canadian Blood Services in Alberta, where they do a barrage of tests. These are intended to both ensure that the donations are from healthy people, and to find a potential match with someone waiting for a match. There is actually a nationwide database of donors and people waiting to be matched at the Canadian Stem Cell Registry.”

Those interested in learning more about the club and wanting to be involved can check out their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/uofrstemcellclub/ or check out their Instagram at @stemcelluofregina.

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