Mixed Match: A documentary on ethnic heritage, donor matching, and survival
Blog Author: Jeff Chiba StearnsPosted: Wednesday, July 4, 2012 - 09:01
Athena Asklipiadis, Krissy Kobata, and Jeff Chiba Stearns
In 2006, I was asked by a friend who had survived cancer to join the national bone marrow registry in Canada, with the hope that I could be a potential match for a young multiethnic man battling leukemia. The man’s heritage was a mix of Chinese and Caucasian. My friend explained that because I am part Japanese and part Caucasian there was a good chance that I could be a match and potentially save this patient’s life. At the time my excuses for not joining the registry were sentiments shared by many others I’ve spoken with lately: I didn’t know how to join the registry, I was too busy, I thought it was really painful, and I didn’t understand why ethnicity mattered.
As an independent filmmaker, I focus a lot of my work on multiethnic identity. My films mainly draw from my own experiences growing up as someone of mixed heritage in Canada, and I have been fortunate to create some successful animated and documentary films on the subject. Most recently I completed a feature documentary entitled “One Big Hapa Family,” exploring the high intermarriage rate amongst the Japanese Canadian community and how their multiethnic children perceive their unique identities.
Last year, I was contacted by Athena Asklipiadis, founder of Mixed Marrow, the only group in North America that specifically recruits multiethnic people to sign up to the bone marrow registries. I had no idea about the challenges that multiethnic patients with rare blood diseases faced when trying to find a bone marrow transplant, so what Athena told me was shocking: finding a stem cell match for a multiethnic patient has been compared to finding a needle in a haystack, with one in a million odds. For these patients, siblings only hold about a one in four chance of being a match.
Since many markers on the cells are specific to certain ethnic groups, multiethnic people have a difficult time when their tissue typing has unusual or uncommon combinations. To put this in perspective, if your background is Egyptian, Japanese, and Russian, there is a likely chance that only another person with a similar ethnic blend could be a possible donor if you are diagnosed with leukemia.
According to One Match, less than 1% of people on Canada’s national donor registry identify as being multiethnic. The odds then become even less for a mixed patient given the endless variety of possible genetic combinations in the registry based on their own unique blended heritage.
Athena convinced me to pursue this issue as a topic for a feature-length documentary in order to raise awareness and help save lives by encouraging people to join their national stem cell registries.
The film, entitled “Mixed Match,” focuses on how mixed-race people are one of the fastest growing demographics in North America, and how more mixed kids being born today are being diagnosed with rare blood diseases. Right now, there aren’t enough multiethnic donors registered to fill this demand, and a lot of sick kids are at risk of never finding a suitable donor. We also explore the growing need for cord blood banks and advancements in the field of cord blood stem cell transplantation.
The documentary tells the story of some courageous young people, including Krissy Kobata, a young part-Japanese woman from LA who was diagnosed with MDS almost 4 years ago. While Krissy is still searching for a match, in the meantime she has helped to organize donor drives that have recruited thousands of multiethnic donors. We also follow the stories of young children who, after extensive searching, were lucky enough to find their matches, and who were given the opportunity to meet their donors, many of whom share the same ethnic heritage as them.
We are halfway through production and are hoping to release the film late 2013. So far our project has raised $20 000 in public support and contributions from associations such as the Katelyn Bedard Bone Marrow Association and Aplastic Anemia & Myelodysplasia Association of Canada.
To learn more, or to contribute to our fundraising efforts, visit mixedmatchmovie.com. I’ve since joined the registry myself and I know this film will save lives and bring awareness to this cause. Thank you so much for your support.