Saturday 7 December 2019

Watch: Leukaemia patient overjoyed after finding 'needle in haystack' stem cell match

The mixed-race student from London thanks campaigners who launched 'needle in a haystack' global hunt for life-saving donor

Lara Casalotti, who is half-Thai-Chinese and half-Italian, needs a life-saving stem cell transplant but faced a
Lara Casalotti, who is half-Thai-Chinese and half-Italian, needs a life-saving stem cell transplant but faced a "needle in a haystack" search

Camilla Turner

A 24-year-old leukaemia victim, whose celebrity-backed search for a bone marrow donor sparked one of the biggest ever global campaigns of its kind, has found a match.

Lara Casalotti, who is half-Thai-Chinese and half-Italian, needs a life-saving stem cell transplant but faced a "needle in a haystack" search since only three per cent of the worldwide stem cell registers are mixed race, and an even smaller fraction of this have a similar ethnic background to her.

The campaign to find a suitable donor, called Match4Lara, quickly went viral, enlisting the support of JK Rowling, Stephen Fry, fashion photographer Mario Testino, and even the British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Since the appeal was launched a month ago, blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan said it received an "unprecedented" spike in new applicants to the stem cell register, with 15,600 new sign-ups and an almost seven-fold increase in black, Asian, ethnic minority or mixed-race (BAME) donors.

Now Miss Casalotti's family have spoken of their "pure relief" after finding out that a genetic match has been found on the worldwide register.

If all goes to plan, the donor will donate their stem cells in March but their identity must be kept anonymous due to strict patient-donor confidentiality regulations.

 “These past months have been a whirlwind but I am so thankful a donor with a genetic match has now been found,” said Miss Casalotti, who lives in Belsize Park, north London.

"Thanks to everyone’s immense support, I have always stayed hopeful that I would find one, but I realise how lucky I have been, given how difficult it was to find that donor.

"I want to keep urge people to sign up to the donor registries so that everyone can have a chance of finding their match. Let’s find a Match4All."

Supanya, Miss Casalotti's mother, said: "I feel pure relief as we knew the odds were stacked against Lara. Whoever the donor is, they will never, ever know how grateful I am."

Miss Casalotti, who is studying for a masters in global migration at UCL, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia shortly before Christmas while on a research project with an Oxford professor about domestic migrant workers in Thailand.

After finding out that her only brother Seb was not a match, her family launched a global appeal to find her a donor, as well as encouraging more mixed-race people to sign up to the registry.

Lara Casalotti
Lara Casalotti

High profile figures got behind the campaign, including actor Mark Wahlberg, footballer Gareth Bale and Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason.

The campaign received an unexpected boost when David Cameron told the Commons that he “certainly” supports the Match4Lara appeal during Prime Minister’s Questions, urging people to attend a “spit drive” event and sign up to the stem cell register.

Miss Casalotti’s brother Seb a 20-year-old medical student at Cambridge University said: "We’ve been so lucky in finding a match but we know that others are not so fortunate.

“The Match4Lara events planned around the world over the coming weeks will go ahead as planned, so that other families can one day receive the same good news.

“This campaign was hatched around the dinner table and we never expected it to receive such incredible support. We were inspired by the Match4Aary campaign, who is still waiting for a match, so we need people to keep signing up to registries worldwide.”

Ann O’Leary, Head of Register Development at Anthony Nolan, said: “We’re so grateful to Lara and all of her incredible supporters for spreading the word about the simple but vital act of donating stem cells.

“By diversifying the donor register, they have given hope to so many other people from ethnic minority and mixed race communities.

“The life-changing impact of the Match4Lara campaign will be seen for years to come, as any one of the thousands of people they have signed up could save the life of someone like Lara in the future.”

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