Asian Heritage Month: Raising awareness on Asian stem cell donors with the Stem Cell Club

May is Asian Heritage Month, a time to recognize and celebrate the contributions and achievements of Asian Canadians. It provides an opportunity for Canadians to learn about and celebrate the diverse cultures and histories of Asian communities in Canada. The event recognizes the contributions that Asian Canadians have made to the country’s social, cultural, and economic fabric. The theme for Asian Heritage Month 2023 is “Stories of Determination.” This month is a reminder for all of us to come together to combat anti-Asian racism and discrimination in all its forms. Read more here.

One way to support this community is by raising awareness about the need for stem cell donors among Asians, who are underrepresented in the global registry. The Stem Cell Club‘s East Asians Save Lives & South Asians Save Lives are campaigns led by undergraduate student Lauren Sano & PhD student Rupal Hatkar, under the supervision of Dr. Warren Fingrut, and are dedicated to increasing the number of Asian stem cell donors.

Check out the CDTRP Stem Cell Club’s highlight here.

South Asians Save Lives

Patients with blood cancers or other blood/immune diseases may need a stem cell transplantation as part of their treatment; however, most do not have a fully matched donor in their families and need an unrelated donor. Patients are more likely to find a matched unrelated donor from within their own ancestral group, but South Asian donors are underrepresented on Canadian and global stem cell registries (i.e. South Asians make up one fifth of the world’s population, but less than 2% of registered stem cell donors). This disparity results in less than 40% of South Asian patients finding a matched unrelated donor, compared to greater than 75% of European ancestry patients.

Meet Rupal Hatkar: South Asians Save Lives campaign Lead

“Based on this need, several years ago I set out to raise awareness about the need for more South Asian stem cell donors”, says Rupal Hatkar, a third year PhD student at University of Toronto. “I worked as a leader with the Canadian donor recruitment organization Stem Cell Club to launch the South Asians Save Lives campaign, to educate South Asians about stem cell donation and engage the community to donation. We developed an array of multimedia resources, including infographics, social media posts featuring stories from South Asian stem cell donors and recipients, as well as TikToks developed by South Asian students from across Canada. We also collaborated with Transplant Physicians, including Dr. Arjun Law of Princess Margaret Cancer Center, to make multimedia in support of the campaign. These resources are shared online nationwide during periods of significance to the community, including Asian Heritage month in Canada. We also run in-person donor recruitment events in honour of patients actively searching for a match for transplant. For example, over the past year, we recruited many hundreds of donors at drives dedicated to Misha and Zoey, two South Asian girls who need a stem cell transplantation for a rare immune disease.”

What’s next?

People can support the South Asians Save Lives campaign in several ways. This includes sharing the multimedia resources across their networks, signing up as donors if eligible (and encouraging their eligible friends and family to sign up too), and volunteering with and supporting the campaign. In terms of next steps, since South Asian communities encompass populations which speak many different languages, Rupal and her team are currently developing resources across multiple South Asian languages. This work is being conducted in collaboration with advocates and physicians from these communities. These resources will be especially important to support the education of elders in the communities, who often play a major role in life decisions for younger family members, including the decision to register as a donor.

“Overall, we will keep working to educate South Asian communities about donation and address the disparity in access to donors. We hope our campaign will help South Asian patients in need of transplantation to find their lifesaving match” says Rupal.

About Rupal Hatkar

Rupal Hatkar is a third year PhD student in cancer genomics at University of Toronto (U of T) in the department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology. In addition to her graduate studies, she also works as a stem cell specialist at Princess Margaret Hospital, where she assesses blood stem cell donors and recipients to ensure informed consent and clearance for transplant and supports the management of the cellular therapy inventory (including domestic and international stem cells). Since 2019, Rupal has served as co-president of the U of T chapter of Stem Cell Club, a non-profit organization which works to raise awareness about blood stem cell donation and increase representation of diverse ethnic/racial groups on the Canada’s Stem Cell Registry. In addition to her leadership in stem cell donor recruitment at U of T, Rupal supports national donor recruitment efforts through her work developing and evaluating virtual campaigns to recruit specific needed demographics of donors and to build a more inclusive donor registry, including for South Asian and 2SLGBTQ+ people.

East Asians Save Lives

Many patients with blood diseases require a stem cell transplant as part of their treatment, and many do not have a fully matched donor in their family. Patients are more likely to find a match from within their own ethnic group, but East Asian donors—including Japanese, Korean and Chinese Peoples—are underrepresented on the Canadian stem cell registry.

Meet Lauren Sano: East Asians Save Lives campaign Lead

“In my final year of high school, I received devastating news” says Lauren Sano, an undergratuate at Western University. “I learned that my father had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia, and needed to start aggressive chemotherapy. The doctors explained that the only way to cure my father’s cancer was for him to receive a blood stem cell transplantation, which requires a suitable donor. My father did not have a fully matched donor in our family, and the next step was to search the global stem cell registry to find an unrelated donor — a stranger who was a match and would be willing to help. We were told that patients are most likely to find a donor from within their own ancestral group — in my father’s case, a donor would be more likely to be a match if they were Japanese. But after a worldwide search, we learned there were no potential donors that matched with him. I ended up being selected as his haploidentical (half-matched) donor. When I was told this news, I remember feeling hopeful that my father would one day return to how healthy he used to be.”

Lauren Sano with her father, Mark

In March 2019 at SickKids Hospital, Lauren received injections of a medicine that increased the production of stem cells in her blood. She was then hooked up to a machine where blood was drawn from one arm and her stem cells were collected. “The procedure was painless and I had very few side effects — I even went to school the next day. Several days later, my family and I sat beside my father as I watched my stem cells drip into his arm through an IV. This day was filled with hope” says Lauren.

But unfortunately, her father suffered from complications following the transplant. On October 13th 2020, her father passed away and Lauren was devastated.

After this tragic event, Lauren joined Western’s Stem Cell Club, and learned of the lack of diversity on Canada’s Stem Cell Registry. Indeed, nearly 70% of donors on the registry have European ancestry, with less than 30% being non-European (and less than 1% Japanese). “I understood why my father had such a difficult time finding a suitable donor. And I wanted to do something about this” explains Lauren.

Lauren became more involved, and in the years that followed she gathered TikToks, infographics and testimonials – some she made herself and others made by Asian students from universities across the country – advocating for donation. Transplant hematologist Dr. Wilson Lam from Princess Margaret Cancer Center also made a video in support of their efforts. She packaged these multimedia resources into a campaign that is shared nationwide to engage East Asian peoples to donation.

What’s next?

Everyone can help advocate with the campaign, by sharing the East Asians Save Lives website and multimedia resources, and encouraging all those eligible (i.e. ages 17-35, in good general health) to register as potential donors at

“I truly believe there is no better gift than giving someone else another chance to live, and I hope this campaign helps share that message widely” concludes Lauren.

About Lauren Sano

Lauren Sano is an undergraduate student at Western University, and is President of the Western University Stem Cell Club. She also leads Stem Cell Club’s East Asians Save Lives campaign, which works to engage East Asian peoples in Canada as potential stem cell donors. Lauren previously donated stem cells to her father, and she shares her donation story and the impact on her life in this TedX talk.

How are stem cells donated?

There are 2 ways in which stem cells can be donated:

  1. Blood – 90% of the time stem cells are obtained from a simple procedure that is similar to giving blood. A growth factor is used to increase stem cell count in blood, which is then collected in a procedure taking around 4-6 hours.
  2. Bone marrow – stem cell donation from bone marrow is necessary less than 10% of the time. The procedure is performed under anesthesia and donors who have undergone bone marrow donation report the feeling post-donation to be similar to falling on ice.

If matched with a patient, a physician will decide which method is best suited under the circumstances at hand. See the images below for details on how each procedure is performed.