On Sept. 22, Amit Gupta ’02 was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Four days later, he started treatment. Gupta learned that the average cure rate, or average rate of being alive and in remission at the five-year mark, was only 35 percent without a transplant. With a bone marrow transplant, however, the cure rate doubled. That is when the problems arose.
Gupta is of South Asian descent, so he is most likely to match with others of South Asian decent. The problem is that South Asians are severely underrepresented in the National Marrow Donor Program registry. Currently, there are only 160,000 South Asians in the registry. In fact, Gupta only has a 1 in 20,000 chance of finding a perfect match.
Faced with this almost insurmountable challenge, Gupta did what he does best and immediately started blogging his request for help in finding a donor match, spreading the word through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
“Amit is an Internet entrepreneur who has dedicated himself to bringing people together online, and in the process has founded online companies and collaborative projects including Photojojo, Jelly and the Daily Jolt. I think it’s fitting that people should come together online to help him,” said Joshua Garnder, Gupta’s friend since high school who has helped put together several events for Gupta’s cause. “He is one of the best, kindest, most creative, and all-around most awesome people I know.”
Gupta’s friends, including over 20 Amherst alumni, and family quickly took up the cause, hosting marrow drives to help increase the amount of South Asians, as well as other minorities and Caucasians, into the registry. From the website amitguptaneedsyou.com and some Google groups, Team Amit began hosting drives. Drives have occurred at Google, Amazon and other technical companies in the West, as well as at temples in New York and at parties at Harvard, RISD, Boston Univ. and Tufts.
“I think there have been eight or nine drives in the Boston area alone,” Gardner said.
Even in places as far as Australia and India, people who have never met Gupta responded to his cause and organized drives.
“We’ve swabbed at least 1,000 people in cities all over India,” said Noah Winer ’01, Gupta’s sophomore year roommate and co-creator of the Daily Jolt.
According to Jackie Dechongkit ’02, who helps run the campaign and was Gupta’s honorary pre-frosh, they believe they have swabbed at least 4,000 people at drives during their six-week push. They had about 200 drives in the U.S. alone, but the numbers are still coming in, so the final number could be much higher.
“We don’t have exact numbers for how many people we’ve been able to add to the national registry yet, but it’s at least a couple of thousand so far. The National Marrow Donor Program confirmed that since Amit’s cause has been online, there has been 2.5 times the daily traffic to their website than there had previously been. That’s not including the drives we’ve held in India or other international registrations,” said Jessa Clark, Amit’s personal assistant and friend who has been staying with him at Yale Univ.’s Cancer Center while he receives treatment.
Gupta has also been featured in articles on Wired.com, The Huffington Post, Time Magazine’s website and was featured on Sanjay Gupta’s CNN show. Additionally, DoSomething.org took up Gupta’s cause, creating a video with “Parks and Recreation’s” Aziz Ansari and Chris Pratt to garner support for the cause.
“It’s been inspiring to see how many people, including people who have no direct connection to Amit, have given their time, energy and cheek cells to help him find a match,” Gardner said. “I’ve helped coordinate drives in Boston, and there has been a tremendous outpouring of support, assistance and good wishes from a wide variety of people. On a personal level, there is nothing I would like more than to help Amit find a match.”
Shirin Adhami ’01, who has worked to organize several events for Gupta’s cause, including some at the Queens Museum in New York, and hopes to have more in Pakistan, agreed.
“Hopefully, it makes people less afraid to sign up as donors,” Adhami said.
On Nov. 30, 4Amit came to the College. The event was put together with the help of Adhami, Tracy Julian, Gupta’s account manager from the National Bone Marrow Registry and several student volunteers, including Narendra Joshi ’13, co-president of the South Asian Students Association (SASA), Sebastien Fontanges for the UMass Public Health program, Elena Villafana ’14 and Denise McGoldrick of the Student Health Educators (SHE). Professor Kyle McGeoch and the Computer Science Department also helped by sponsoring and publicizing the event. Due to their efforts, 55 new registry members were added in three hours.
“I am privileged to work with all the students, and it was comforting to see how little has changed in the energy of the student body,” Adhami said. “Students came out because they had heard about the event and wanted to swab. Faculty (including my former professors) were also very supportive and stopped by the table to say hello, or join the registry.”
Joshi agreed, stating that the turnout was great considering the limited amount of time the event went on and the limited publicity they got out.
“There was representation of people from diverse backgrounds, not just South Asians,” Joshi said. “Also, I think it also helped to increase awareness about acute leukemia and donor registration, which is also very important.”
Gupta is currently in his second course of chemotherapy, which he will have to continue monthly until a transplant can take place. He is feeling sick from the chemotherapy and was unavailable for questions. However, hope is on the horizon.
Wired.com recently reported that a number of suitable donors have been identified during the Team Amit campaign. Now doctors will do a series of more thorough evaluations to find if there are actually any viable donors. If a match is identified, the process of setting up a transplant could take three weeks. If it takes longer, there is a risk Gupta will have corneal damage and cell damage in his mouth due to the chemotherapy. Furthermore, the match must follow through on their promise to donate. Team Gupta, however, plans to continue to encourage more people to join the bone marrow registry.
“As long as there is still momentum for the cause, we will encourage people who want to register as donors or host a donor drive,” Clark said. “Even though people that register from here forward will probably not have their sample processed in time for them to be in the potential donor pool for Amit, there are still hundreds of other people waiting for a match whose lives could be saved.”
South Asians aren’t the only health disparity within the registry. Asians, Latinos and African Americans are also needed. According to Julian, college students are the best recruits for the registry because surgeons see better grafting and higher survival for patients with younger donors.
“Our goal is to find a match for all 10,000 people looking each year,” Julian said. “We need more young healthy members of all types of heritage to join the registry. We are now doing 5,000 transplants per year. Our goal is 10,000.”
Registering and donating is quite easy. All that is required to register is a sample of cheek cells, which can be taken with four cotton swabs similar to q-tips. The process is painless and quick, and swabs can be ordered online at www.marrow.org. Donating is also relatively easy. Eighty percent of donors donate through stem cell collection, which is just like donating platelets on a Apheresis machine except it takes four to six hours. The other 20 percent of donors donate marrow under anesthesia with a short recovery time.
“A lot of people seem to be scared of the idea of donation, or to think it’s highly intrusive, painful and dangerous, and those things simply aren’t true,” Gardner said. “It’s a much smaller deal than it used to be, and a miniscule price to pay for saving someone’s life. I hope we can correct these misconceptions because they are preventing people from registering and donating.”
Besides registering online, students can register at Keefe Campus Center today from noon to 2 p.m. Students can also help by encouraging others to donate, spreading the word about Gupta’s cause, setting up drives and donating money to the cause.