QUB students are trying to find bone marrow donor for girl with Leukaemia

Nicole’s Irish-Italian heritage means she is struggling to find a match

Students from Belfast Marrow, a branch of Anthony Nolan based at QUB, have spearheaded a twitter campaign to find a bone marrow match for 24-year-old Nicole Di Pietro-Fisher. She has been diagnosed with leukaemia and her mixed-race heritage has left her with a “slim chance” of finding a match. They are also holding an event on Sunday.

Nicole was told she “could be dead within weeks”.

Their posts are going viral, with thousands of people from all over the world sharing Nicole’s story and getting in touch with the Anthony Nolan donor register to say that they have joined their local stem cell register in the hope of helping Nicole or someone in a similar position one day.

A host of high profile celebrities have endorsed the search for a match, including Nigella Lawson, Limmy and J.K. Rowling.

J.K. Rowling's retweet

J.K. Rowling was one of 8.5k retweets

The students have now organised a weekend of donor recruitment events to give local young people the opportunity to join the stem cell register in person. They will have a stall at Belfast Pride Village from 11.30-4.30pm on Saturday 6th August. As well as supporting Nicole’s appeal, they are keen to encourage more gay and bisexual men to join the register, as there is a common misconception that blood donation restrictions apply to stem cell donation too, when this isn’t the case.

On Sunday 7th August, they will be running an event in Portstewart Bandstand from 10am-5pm, and “Morelli’s To Go” Portstewart from 12pm-6pm. They are encouraging 16-30 year olds to come along and chat to trained volunteers about the stem cell register, and sign up if they are interested.

Music producer Nicole Di Pietro-Fisher, 24, was diagnosed with leukaemia in January this year after first being diagnosed 14 years ago. Nicole says, “I had cancer when I was 10 but went into remission at 16. I was devastated when I found out the cancer was back again. I was just two years away from reaching the coveted ‘ten year remission’ milestone”.

Nicole says: “Doctors think I might only have weeks to find a donor. Without a stem cell transplant, I will die. If anyone is reading this thinking about joining the register, please do it now. You have the potential to save my life. And even if you’re not a match for me, there are thousands of people waiting for life-saving donors.”

Nicole’s partner, Jenny, adds: “Nicole’s time is running out. We really need people – especially those from mixed-race backgrounds – to join the register before it’s too late.”

Nicole started radiotherapy and chemotherapy straight away, keeping in touch with Jenny over the phone and text. The cancer had spread to her brain and spinal cord. “Doctors told me a stem cell transplant was my only chance of a cure. But because of my mixed-race heritage, the chances of finding a match were slim,” Nicole explains.

Nicole (L) and Jenny (R)

She contacted blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan, which matches potential stem cell donors to blood cancer patients in desperate need of a transplant. They searched the worldwide registers to find a match, but only 0.5% of people on the Anthony Nolan register in the UK are from East Asian backgrounds and 1.5% are from European backgrounds. If you’re a white European you have a 96% chance of finding a suitable donor on the register. This falls to 60% if you’re from a black, Asian or ethnic minority background. There is a 25% to 30% chance of having the same tissue type as a sibling. Sadly, Nicole’s brother is not a match.

Ann O’Leary, Head of Register Development at Anthony Nolan, says, ‘What many people don’t realise is how easy it is to join the Anthony Nolan register – it simply involves filling in a form and providing a saliva sample. If you’re one of the privileged few who goes on to donate, 90% of the time this will now take place via an outpatient appointment which is similar to donating blood.’

People aged 16-30 can join the register online here.