Bone marrow transplant ‘my best option’, 22-year-old says

National initivative OneMatch lands in Scarborough searching for stem cell donors to match with patients

Cristina Di Corte shares something with only a handful of other people across the country.

The 22-year-old Mississauga woman suffers from mitochondrial neurogastrointestinal encephalopathy (MNGIE), a genetic disorder that only 70 people in Canada have.

Cristina Di Corte, right, with her father, is working with OneMatch to find a stem cell match to save her life.
Cristina Di Corte, right, with her father, is working with OneMatch to find a stem cell match to save her life. The 22-year-old suffers from mitochondrial neurogastrointestinal encephalopathy, a genetic disorder only 70 people in Canada have.

“I found out that I had MNGIE a little over two years ago,” Di Corte said. “I went to a genetic doctor who tested me for the disease I have and (they) explained that a bone marrow transplant would be my best option.”

MNGIE is a genetic disorder that causes the digestive tract to no longer be able to move food through the body or absorb nutrients from it. The disease has made it necessary for Di Corte to receive all of her nutrition, fluids, and medications through a central line catheter. The disease has also caused her to begin losing sensation in her lower limbs.

Di Corte is working with OneMatch, a Canadian Blood Services initiative, to find a bone marrow donor for her. OneMatch held its annual Scarborough Get Swabbed event at the University of Toronto Scarborough on Nov. 12.

“We have been doing the Get Swabbed university campaign for four years,” said Hailu Mulata, OneMatch coordinator for Central Ontario. “The purpose of Get Swabbed is to recruit optimal donors to support the patients that we serve.”

There are 1,000 Canadian patients waiting for a donor from someone they don’t know, Mulata said.

Nationally, 28 universities participate in Get Swabbed every year.

Despite its relatively small size, UTSC regularly places near the top in stem cell donations, placing third last year. And Scarborough’s diverse multicultural population makes an ideal place to receive stem cell donations, Mulata said.

“A lot of the time, but not always, a stem cell match will come from someone with a similar cultural background,” Mulata said. “Scarborough presents the perfect place to gather donations because it has a large population of young ethnic males whose stem cells provide a higher survival rate.”

There is a great need for donors from different communities, including Asian, Arab and Indian, she said.

“Across the national level, we have a severe lack of representation from ethnic groups in regards to stem cell donations,” said Mulata, adding she believes one cause may be prevailing myths about donating stem cells.

“There is a misconception about the procedure being painful,” she said. “Primarily the stem cells are taken from the blood.

“In the rare cases where the stem cells need to be taken from the pelvic bone, the patient is given anaesthesia and is unconscious during the operation, so the myth of the procedure being painful is unfounded.”

Zameer Esmail, a Scarborough resident who was raised in Zambia, didn’t let the possibility of pain stop him from donating to OneMatch.

“I think it is important that we donate to OneMatch,” he said. “Cancer or other forms of diseases in some shape or form have affected everyone.

“It is key that we work to help others. There may be a time where we need a donation from a stranger.”

Di Corte is still waiting for a stem cell donor. Though she remains positive, she said she knows what’s at stake for her if donors like Esmail don’t come forward.

“If no match is found, the disease will progress a lot faster, I will suffer and my life will be much shorter than I ever intended it to be,” Di Corte said.