If you could easily save a life, would you do it?
Asians and people with mixed-race heritage are severely under-represented in bone marrow donor bank registries, and people with otherwise terminal illnesses can be saved by having their bone marrow match with someone who has similar genetics.
Six years later, his full-length documentary film, Mixed Match, has been completed and recently premiered at the Vancouver International Film Festival, with upcoming November screenings at festivals in the U.S. and Canada.
“I read a lot of headlines saying ‘it’s hopeless for mixed race people,” and it’s ‘like finding a needle in a haystack,’ so I wanted to go into more of an investigative mode to see if this is really such a problem, and if so, why?” Stearns said. “So I went on a journey to find out why this is happening, at the same time while sharing unique stories from across North America of patients first hand who are experiencing this.”
Stearns was initially approached by Athena Mari Asklipiadis, the founder and director of Mixed Marrow. It recruits donors for Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches (A3M), a recruitment center for the Be The Match Registry and the Puget Sound Blood Center in Seattle. Asklipiadis is of mixed-race heritage, and Mixed Marrow is one of the only groups that actively recruits people of mixed race background to donate. She felt this could be a compelling topic for Stearns as a filmmaker who is also mixed race to cover.
In the United States and Canada, around 80% of the registry is comprised of people who identify as Caucasian or of European descent. In other countries such as China or India, their stem cell registries are quite new or just being developed. And in many Third World countries, they may not even have a bone marrow registry, Stearns said. So, if you have someone from a Southeast Asian country who gets a disease curable by stem cell transplants, they have to look outside of their country to find a match.
“For a long time, people in China had to look outside of China to find matches in Taiwan because China didn’t have a registry set up—in China, there’s also a stigma surrounding cancer, so there’s a great need in some communities to create awareness that a lot of the time when you’re donating stem cells, it’s as easy as giving blood,” Stearns says.
What ends up happening in the United States is that “a lot of first generation communities have more reservations about joining a bone marrow registry because maybe there’s some religious issues that surround the idea of not giving of yourself in that way, or there’s a stigma toward donating parts of yourself,” Stearn said. “And so I think a lot of second and third generation minorities and multi-ethnic people sometimes face pressure from parents who don’t quite understand the importance of why people should donate to help someone else.”
Stearns describes joining the registry as “a really selfless act” due to the ease with which one can donate, and the potential to save someone’s life. Many people have the misconception that giving bone marrow requires constantly drilling into the hip, but technology and methods of retrieving stem cells has greatly advanced, and it is now just as simple as giving blood. One method of donating is to donate umbilical cord blood to the national cord blood registry.
“During the course of the film, my wife get birth to our first child, and at the end of the film we actually donate the cord blood,” Stearns said. “This would otherwise just be thrown out as medical waste, and instead it can be used to help save a life.”
When Stearns joined the registry, he learned that out of 25 million people, he is matched with one man in South Korea. So, if this man decided not to donate, Stearns would not have a match. Siblings only have a one-in-four chance in matching, due to each parent carrying genes from four grandparents, so because of this, many people need to look outside of their families for a bone marrow donor.
Doctors are trying to transplant an immune system to someone who’s own immune system is failing. When they look to try and match someone’s immune system they need to find someone who is genetically matched to the patient. That means, it has nothing to do with blood type or blood, it has to do with stem cells and DNA.
For Caucasians, there is a 95 per cent chance that a person will find a match, and 65 per cent for African Americans, since there is a long history of mixing between people who do not originate from the same tribes in Africa, and due to lower representation in the registry. But for Asians and people who are multi-ethnic, it really takes the spreading of awareness for more people to sign up, and increase the chances of helping someone with similar genetics, Stearns said.
“Through these home testing kits for genetics, people are finding out that they are, for example, of 65 percent Native American ancestry, and people are shocked they actually carry genes they didn’t know about, so this film really encourages anyone and everyone to join the registry because you don’t know who you have the potential to match to and to help save the life of,” Stearns said.
At each of the screenings, Stearns said he and his team are aiming to have a bone marrow drive afterward, so that people who have come out of the theatre inspired can join the registry. The documentary team has also set up a website, where people can learn how they can join the registries, watch bonus footage and learn about current news stories and scientific developments to do with stem cell donation. Stearns captured over 200 hours to make the film, so the website serves as an online portal to showcase a lot of the stories that we weren’t able to fit into 96 minute film.
Mixed Match will be screened as several festivals in November, including the Hawaii International Film Festival, Vancouver Asian Film Festival, San Diego Asian Film Festival, in Toronto at Reel Asian Film Festival, and Philadelphia Asian Film Festival, and Stearns hopes to screen at several more, including in Seattle.
“This is one of the only curative treatments for cancer that really exists, and everyone who joins the registry is really a hero when you think about it, because they are increasing the chances of saving someone’s life, which is really a miracle,” Stearns said. “We’ve been told even people who just saw the fundraising trailer before the film was complete have signed up. And that’s the goal, if we can save even one life with this film then the entire six year journey was worth it.”