A decision to help a boy in 1970s saves the life of another, decades later

June 5, 2012 | by City of Hope Staff

Sometimes it takes one person’s tragedy to save the life of another. That’s what happened with the 1979 death of Anthony Nolan in England of a rare blood disease. Only 7 years old, he died before a matching bone marrow donor could be found for a transplant. But his case mobilized thousands to register to donate their own cells to people who desperately needed them.


Photo of marrow donor Catherine Benson holding patient Gavin Wolfrank Marrow donor Catherine Benson holds patient Gavin Wolfrank. (Photo by Thomas Brown)


More than three decades later, the bone marrow registry movement he inspired actually brought new life to a toddler at City of Hope named Gavin Wolfrank. Struggling with leukemia, Gavin needed a transplant of blood stem cells to reset his blood and immune system.

His gift would come from Catherine Benson, of England, in 2010. Benson decided to sign up as a potential blood stem cell donor because it was a family tradition: Her mother and grandmother were so moved by Anthony Nolan’s famous case that they registered as donors in the 1970s. They didn’t match Anthony, but their family legacy would eventually make a difference for Gavin, who’s now a healthy 6-year-old boy.

The impact of the three generations’ decision to donate not only spans more than 30 years, but it also brings together two continents. Marrow donation has become international.

Anthony’s mother created the world’s first marrow donor registry in the 1970s, in England. But shortly before Gavin’s transplant in California, the number of registries had mushroomed to 76 across the world.

More than two in every five unrelated bone marrow transplants worldwide involve donors and recipients from different countries. City of Hope has performed transplants using cells from throughout the world, and volunteers who signed up for the Be The Match registry through City of Hope have helped countless others.

As City of Hope transplant pioneer Stephen J. Forman, M.D., puts it: “This emphasizes how small the world has become.” Debates over the merits of globalization continue, but in the case of Gavin and so many other patients, the integration of people across national and cultural borders has brought new hope to those needing blood stem cell transplants.

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