Dr. Julianne Grose won an award for her work with bone marrow transplant registry.
When her brother-in-law was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2003 and was unable to find a match for a bone marrow transplant, BYU molecular biology professor Julianne Grose realized she didn’t want anyone else to experience the helplessness her family was feeling. In 2017 Grose began working with the non-profit Be the Match to organize classroom and on-campus drives, helping interested students register as potential donors through the National Marrow Donor Program “Be the Match on Campus.”
Through her leadership over the past five years, more than 5,000 BYU students have joined the registry of possible marrow donors, people willing to anonymously donate to save a stranger’s life. So far, at least 46 current or former students have matched with blood cancer patients in need and donated to save their lives. Be the Match recently recognized Grose’s efforts by naming her the recipient of the 2022 Lives Award.
“I just believe in it,” Grose said of her motivation to keep building BYU’s chapter of Be the Match after so much time. “Even though it didn’t work out for my brother-in-law, it works out for other people. It changes everyone’s lives, the donor’s, the recipient’s, their families.”
For Grose, seeing how registering and donating affects students is the best part of volunteering with Be the Match. “In the hall all the time, I’ll pass a student who will say to me, ‘Hey, I just registered, I just got called, I just donated!’ They love that they saved somebody’s life, and Be the Match loves our generous students.”
One such student is BYU senior Carson Sork, who first learned about Be the Match as a freshman in Grose’s “phage hunters” class.
“I didn’t join immediately, but it just stayed in the back of my head like an itch. One day I finally followed through and mailed in the cheek swabs, and then I kind of forgot about it. But just a few months later, I got a call.”
Last year, Sork donated to a 67-year-old woman with a rare cancer. Losing his own grandmother unexpectedly to cancer a few years ago was a major motivator in his decision to donate.
“If I had the opportunity to have a little more time with my grandma, and someone else had the power to give me that time, I would have been really grateful,” Sork said.
“Donating is a Christ-like thing I can do, and I would encourage anyone to think about it in that way: you’re giving someone time with their grandma or their mother or their child that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Growing the registry is critical because matching tissue for a bone marrow transplant is so precise. Most blood cancer patients don’t find a match among family members, and the average chance of matching any one given stranger is about one in a million, although the odds vary widely depending on how rare a person’s tissue type is.
Grose’s expertise has uniquely qualified her to educate students about cancer and the transplant process. Working with BYU’s Simmons Center for Cancer Research, Grose studies how cancer develops at the molecular level. She also researches phages — viruses that battle bacteria — and has worked on developing human phage therapies for cancer patients with bacterial infections that can’t be treated with antibiotics.
“It’s fun to be able to teach students about the biology behind cancer and the stem cell transplant process. I can explain to them how donation works, why they might be a person’s only match and chance at life,” Grose said.
Patients receive a bone marrow transplant as a last resort, but matches can work miracles: most of the time, transplants either cure cancer or put the patient into remission. Registering is as simple as providing a cheek swab, which remains in the registry until the potential donor either asks to be removed or turns 61.
On average, a potential donor has about a 2% chance of eventually matching someone. Donating is a low-risk outpatient procedure; 85% of the time, the donation type is peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC), similar to giving platelets or plasma. “People get scared sometimes when they hear ‘bone marrow,’ but when I donated, I was amazed at the technology they have and how quick and easy it was,” Sork said.
Grose plans to continue sharing her message with students and any others who may be interested in registering as a potential donor. “Every time we register 50 to 100 people, we know we’ve probably just saved a life,” she said.
Look for the next Be the Match registration booth in Merigold quad on January 11. Visit Be the Match to learn more about the registry and order your own swab kit.