Atlanta — Delia Fernandez is looking for her perfect match.
Not for love, but to stay alive.
The married mother of four, who was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in 2008, has waited nearly two years for a new bone marrow transplant.
Anti-cancer drugs didn't work. Nor did a previous transplant. Donor and recipient DNA have to be closely matched for transplants to work.
So far, doctors scouring a registry of potential bone marrow donors for a match that will work and not cause new complications have come up empty-handed.
That's why Fernandez, 38, a resident of Hiram, Ga., wants people to join the registry as potential donors, particularly African-Americans, Asians and Latinos.
Minorities are underrepresented on Minneapolis-based Be the Match, a large registry of potential bone marrow donors.
More than 70 types of diseases, including leukemia and lymphoma, can be treated with bone marrow transplants.
She says the decision by "Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts to go public with her battle against myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare blood disease, helped raise awareness about the importance of bone marrow transplants, which replace dysfunctional blood-forming stem cells with healthy ones. Roberts, who recently returned to work, received a bone marrow donation from her sister.
"This is not just for me, but to help save other people's lives," says Fernandez, a logistics analyst for an Atlanta company.
For those needing such transplants, there's a 30 percent chance that a family member, particularly siblings with the same two parents, will be a full match.
The greatest risk for complications for recipients is graft-versus-host-disease, in which the donor's immune system recognizes the patient's cells as foreign and attacks them, says Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society.
Fernandez's siblings are only partial matches, so now she is looking outside her family.
People with the same ancestry are most likely to be matches. But genetics can be tricky. Latinos, for example, come from a very diverse genetic pool, which makes it more difficult to find a full match.
"You think of your genetics as a fingerprint," says Dr. Scott Solomon, an Atlanta hematologist and oncologist and medical director of the Unrelated Donor Transplant Program at Northside Hospital in Atlanta.
"Trying to find someone with the same fingerprint is very, very difficult." And there have been"some amazing matches" between people of different ancestries, Brawley says.
"There have been good matches between individuals who appear to be European and individuals who appear to be black," he says.
There are several ways to donate, including by bone marrow stem cell collection, a surgical outpatient procedure done in a hospital.
Peripheral blood stem cells can also be given in an outpatient procedure similar to donating platelets or plasma.
Blood stem cells are the most frequent donation, and fewer than 1 percent of PBSC donors experience a serious side effect from the process.