Seven-year-old Ryan Jacoby was enjoying his second-grade year at Riviera Elementary School, in Torrance, like any normal child — when he started to get headaches.
Tests confirmed what Ryan and his family feared most: The cancer that seemed to be treated 17 months ago had returned.
Ryan, who lives in Redondo Beach’s Hollywood Riviera, has acute myeloid leukemia. For the past two and a half weeks, he has been at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, receiving the first of three rounds of chemotherapy while doctors attempt to locate a stem cell or bone marrow donor.
But there’s a problem.
About one in every 430 people who sign up to become a donor are a match for a patient, according to the donor group Be The Match. In Ryan’s case, however, the search for a donor is especially difficult because he is mixed race. His father is white and his mother is Vietnamese.
“The reality is, it’s not a good shot,” said his father, Chris Jacoby. “There are pretty low odds of finding someone.”
Out of about 20 million people registered to become potential bone marrow and stem cell donors only about 3 percent are mixed race. Whether doctors utilize a bone marrow or stem cell transplant depends on several factors. A positive donor match could provide either one.
Race and ethnicity play the biggest role in determining a positive donor match because it is based on DNA. But finding a match is rarely predictable, according to Ayumi Nagata, recruitment manager with Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches, which specializes in locating mixed-race Asian donors.
“The challenge is that 3% of mixed-race donors are a variation of combinations,” Nagata said. “That 3% is so varied. It really is quite challenging.”
When Ryan, who has been weak from the chemo, was first diagnosed in 2017 while in kindergarten, for example, an unsuccessful donor search led doctors to try a partial match with his 22-year-old half brother.
“It worked for 17 months,” Jacoby said, “but since it wasn’t a full success they won’t do that one again.”
“There is definitely an urgency,” the father continued, “especially with the turnaround time it takes for someone to register to have their samples analyzed and put in the system.”
While Jacoby is focused on finding a donor for his son, he said, he hopes that other people might find donors in the process of getting the word out.
“It will definitely help us,” Jacoby said, “but it might also help the unfortunate people getting stuck going down the same road.”
Becoming a donor
Follow these steps to become a donor:
- Register at join.bethematch.org/match4ryan or text “Match4ryan” to 61474, and wait to receive a registration link;
- Upon completion of the digital registration, a swab kit will be mailed within three-to-seven business days; and
- Administer the swab kit and send it back.
To become a donor you must be:
- Between the ages of 18 and 44;
- In generally good health; and
- Willing to donate to any patient in need.
What to know about donating
- Roughly 75% of donors provide stem cells in a procedure similar to donating blood or platelets;
- About 25% are asked to provide bone marrow, which involves extracting marrow from the hip bone under general anesthesia; and
- The bone marrow procedure typically leaves patients a little sore for a few days, Nagata said.