“I opened the app and first saw the DNA map, which was still mostly European, a little like my sister’s but with notable differences, like there was no Italian heritage to be found,” Lewis said. “But instead there was 1 percent Senegal and a map highlighting that people with my DNA were likely settlers in the upper Midwest US, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.”
Along with their findings, the site reported a “self/twin” match, stating that Lewis shared DNA with a woman named Nicole. The two bonded and found out that Nicole was Lewis’ donor.
“It was an incredible moment to finally find the person who saved my life and get the opportunity to thank them personally,” said Lewis.
This is how stem cell donation works
There are two ways to donate stem cells.
- Stem cells can be removed from the bone marrow with a needle inserted into the back of the pelvic bone. This procedure is performed under anesthesia and the donor can usually go home the same day.
- When donating peripheral stem cells, the donor must receive injections that increase the number of stem cells in their bloodstream. Blood is then taken from the donor, as in a blood donation. A machine then separates the stem cells and prepares them for transfer. It usually takes four to six hours.
- Anyone aged 18 to 35 who is in good health is eligible to donate. Source: Australian Red Cross Lifeblood
Websites that offer DNA testing for ancestry discourage people who have had a bone marrow or stem cell transplant from having the test because such treatment can interfere with the results.
dr Jenny Wang, head of cancer and stem cell research at the University of Sydney, said that some DNA can be expected when donating stem cells, but the patient also keeps their own DNA. She said finding a matching donor can be difficult.
“Not every patient can have a stem cell transplant, it is difficult to find a suitable stem cell strain, and even in the family it is difficult to find a suitable donor. Finding a donor is really the hardest part of the transplant,” she said. “If it doesn’t go well together, the immune system won’t accept the transplant, it will attack the transplant and make the patient very sick. That is why we have the international registry.”
Lewis, now 23, said she was “incredibly grateful” for Nicole’s “selflessness and generosity” and hoped others could be inspired by her story.
“I’ve since learned that Nicole originally donated because her sister was diagnosed with leukemia in 2012,” she said.
“Her sister survived and thrived on other life-saving experimental drugs, and Nicole remained on the stem cell donor registry for seven years before receiving an appeal to donate her stem cells to a patient anywhere in the world.”
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