Addressing the need for bone marrow donors

Photo by Tim Schoon.

As a University of Iowa immunology graduate student, Greg Esparza has plenty on his plate. There are papers to be written, ongoing research to be performed, his doctoral thesis to be completed and defended—an abundance of things to keep him busy.

“There are thousands of things that he needs to get done,” says William M. Nauseef, who works with Esparza in the Iowa Inflammation Program.

Greg Esparza

Greg Esparza

Still, Esparza found time over the course of several months to organize a fundraiser and bone marrow donor drive at the University of Iowa Research Park in Coralville.

“The aspect of Greg’s efforts that was so striking to me was to have a busy grad student with a long list of things to do, who chose to add to the list by initiating this drive,” Nauseef says. “Greg’s choice and industry illustrate how a busy person can maintain a proper and compassionate perspective.”

The efforts culminated in a one-day marrow donor drive Nov. 11, when Esparza and colleagues registered 45 potential donors at the research campus.

“I’m really interested in being able to help people, and when someone mentioned they had participated in a bone marrow transplant, I really got to thinking about it and did some research on it,” Esparza says.

He found a pressing need for donors on the Be the Match Registry, a global listing of bone marrow donors coordinated by the National Marrow Donor Program. According to the National Marrow Donor Program, more than 10,000 patients are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases such as leukemia or lymphoma each year. A marrow or cord blood transplant may be their best or only option of a cure.

Of those new diagnoses, an estimated 70 percent of patients won’t have a matching donor in their family and must rely on registries like the Be the Match Registry to find an unrelated donor.

“The need to find donors, or potential donors, is real,” Esparza says.

“The donor’s overall health will not be impacted. You will be saving someone’s life. You may be uncomfortable for a day, but the person needing the transplant will die without it.”

—Greg Esparza

As he and his colleagues were planning their event, they discovered another registry drive being planned for the week before on the University of Iowa main campus, organized by the Graduate Marketing Association and Project Marrow.

“We got in touch with them and interfaced with their programs in order to spread awareness of the weeklong event with a large promotional campaign,” Esparza says.

The combined efforts enrolled 562 potential donors into the Be the Match Registry, 45 of which came from the small community at Research Park, Esparza says.

He credits his colleagues for the drive’s success.

“Everybody pulled together,” he says. “We were all ready to pitch in and help. None of this could have been possible if we hadn’t all worked together.”

Potential donors simply need to provide a swab of their DNA from inside their mouth. Their DNA profile will go onto the registry and will be available as a potential match for anyone needing a transplant.

If a donor is selected as a match, Esparza says, most bone marrow donations are done through a peripheral blood stem cell donation. The side effects are minimal and may cause mild discomfort for just a day or two, he says.

“The donor’s overall health will not be impacted,” Esparza says. “You will be saving someone’s life. You may be uncomfortable for a day, but the person needing the transplant will die without it.”

It’s never too late to sign up as a bone marrow donor. For more information on donating bone marrow, visit the Iowa Marrow Donor Program’s website at