For Ohio University senior Lauren Kahn, the most significant test of her college career wasn’t a term paper or a final exam. It was a quick swab on the inside of her cheek her sophomore year, an easy, painless way to gather genetic information for a national database of potential bone marrow donors.
On February 25, 2009, Kahn was one of over 2,500 people who participated in the “Got Swabbed?” drive organized by Ohio’s Hillel, where dedicated interns and volunteer students run one of the most active campus swabbing efforts in the country. The idea is to raise awareness about the need for volunteer donors, especially those of Jewish ancestry. Ohio, now one of 88 campuses partnered with the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, is a “superstar campus,” says Jay Feinberg, the foundation’s executive director.
Since the beginning of “Got Swabbed?” in 2008, Ohio’s bone marrow drives have registered over 5,500 students, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Some 200 were contacted as potential matches, and 13 of them ended up donors. Including, just over two years after she scraped her cheek, Lauren Kahn.
Involvement with Hillel at Ohio seemed natural for Kahn, now 23, who grew up attending Jewish day school in Cincinnati and spent six months before college volunteering at an Israeli nature preserve and preschool. Equally obvious was the decision to throw her genetic hat into the ring when the opportunity presented itself.
“Everyone cares when you hear about kids getting sick,” she says. The simplicity of the test — a cotton swab in the mouth that removes a slight amount of tissue — was a relief for Kahn, an admitted needle-phobe. And the chances of being contacted as a donor — about 1 in 60 for those registered through Hillel drives — seemed only a distant possibility. Even then, more tests would be needed to verify that her marrow, the spongy material inside bones that helps manufacture blood cells, was genetically similar enough to avoid igniting an immune response in a patient with a disease such as leukemia or multiple myeloma.
With her sample collected, labeled and filed away with her contact information, Kahn joked to a friend that with her luck, she would end up a donor.
As luck would have it, she was right.
Finding a bone marrow donor is a race against time and nature. Patients and doctors search for — and hope for — a close genetic match that will replace the sick cells and integrate seamlessly with the recipient’s body. Close family members are easily testable but have only about a 30% chance of matching. Since tissue type is inherited, a stranger of the same ethnic background may be a fit — but will only turn up if his or her genetic data is on file with a donor registry.
“It’s the needle in a haystack,” says Feinberg, whose organization has been a strategic partner with Hillel since 2004.
Feinberg speaks from experience: He was diagnosed with leukemia at age 22, but with Jewish donors widely under-represented, his doctors were blunt about his chances for survival.
“They told me to prepare my bucket list,” Feinberg, now 43, says. Instead, he and his family organized over 250 drives to screen for a match. After registering 60,000 people, Feinberg finally found a donor and received a transplant in 1995.
His foundation, launched in 1991 as Friends of Jay and named Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation in 1996, has grown to a nationwide organization that pioneered the use of swab tests and broadened its search to donors of all backgrounds.
Still, Feinberg calls the partnership with Hillel, the national organization for Jewish college students, “a no-brainer.”