Alberta father searching for life-saving stem cell match for toddler

A Lac La Biche, Alta. man is desperately seeking a matching stem cell donor to save his sick son.

Jacob Marfo’s two-year-old, Ezra, is currently in a Calgary hospital because of acute myelogenous leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. 

Ezra was born in June 2020 and diagnosed the next May.

“He is sick — very very sick,” Marfo told CBC Edmonton’s Radio Active

“Sometimes when you look at him, you can’t even recognize he’s the same boy — that little fun boy — who was running around.”

Ezra has gone through multiple rounds of chemotherapy. He has spent more time in hospitals than he has outside of them, according to his father.

“A stem cell transplant is part of the treatment package because this type of cancer destroys the stem cell in the bone marrow,” Marfo said. 

He said Ezra’s chemotherapy and other treatments have not been successful and stressed the need for a stem cell donation from a perfect match.

Marfo is only a partial match for his son and has already donated his own stem cells twice. 

Now, as Ezra’s condition worsens, he is searching for a better match. 

Similar genetic background

Marfo and his family are from Ghana and more likely to find a matching donor among those who have a similar genetic background.

“Patients have better odds of matching within their own ethnicity when they do need to find that life-saving match,” said Adrienne San Juan, community development manager at Canadian Blood Services. 

Human leukocyte antigens — proteins found in cells in the body — are measured to rank matches. Most transplant doctors aim for a nine or 10 out of 10 match for stem cell transplants.

Ezra’s family members in Canada have all been tested but no match was found.

Listen here 

Radio Active8:32An Alberta toddler is dire need of a stem cell transplant

2-year-old Ezra Marfo was diagnosed with blood cancer last year. Originally from Lac La Biche, he is now in hospital in Calgary, and needs a stem cell transplant. However, he’s having trouble finding a perfect match because there are so few people of African descent in the registry. Ezra’s dad Jacob and Adrienne San Juan, Community Development manager at Canadian Blood Services, joins Radio Active to talk about Ezra’s condition and the need for stem cell donors.

With restrictions on biological materials, his family members in Ghana are unable to send their samples to Canada to be tested. 

Marfo said he has completed forms giving hospitals in Ghana permission to test his family members. He hopes his brother, who lives in Ghana, is a match. 

Marfo was at a stem cell drive in Toronto last weekend because it has a larger population of people of African and Caribbean descent. 

Saving someone’s life

Registering to be a stem cell donor is a quick and painless process. 

“All we require is for you to fill out a quick health questionnaire and then just a quick swab of the inside of your mouth,” San Juan said. 

Anyone between 17 to 35 years of age is eligible to register and will stay on the registry until the age of 60 years old. 

San Juan said it is rare you will actually get the call to donate but registering will bring hope to Canadian patients in need of a match. 

A father hugging his 2 year old son. The toddler has breathing tubers attached to his nostrils. They are in a hospital room.
Ezra Marfo, 2, has spent more time in hospitals than outside of them. (Submitted by Jacob Marfo)

The procedure for donation is a one-day process similar to blood or plasma donation. Stem cells are separated from the blood, and then injected back into the body. 

“There’s no loss to you because your stem cells regenerate after a few weeks,” San Juan said. 

Marfo is asking people to join the registry irrespective of background.

“My focus is my son Ezra,” he said. “But at the hospital, there are a lot of other people who are waiting for a stem cell transplant.”

San Juan said there are currently 1,386 patients in Canada waiting for a life-saving match.

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