Liyna Anwar, 30, Dies; Publicized Inequities in Stem Cell Registry

Liyna Anwar, 30, Dies; Publicized Inequities in Stem Cell Registry

Liyna Anwar, a podcast producer of South Asian descent whose struggle to find a stem cell donor to treat her cancer became the center of a social media campaign that aimed to make up for racial disparities in marrow and stem cell registries, died on March 26 in a hospital in Duarte, Calif. She was 30.

Her brother, Abbas Anwar, said the cause was complications of acute myeloid leukemia, the disease for which she had needed a stem cell transplant.

Stem cell and bone marrow transplants, critical treatments for blood cancers and other diseases, are far more likely to succeed when the recipient and donor are close genetic matches. When Ms. Anwar’s family sought a match for her, they found a dearth of potential minority donors registered. Among members of her family, her brother was the closest match, but still not an ideal donor for her.

A South Asian patient has about a 38 percent chance of finding a matching donor, considerably lower than white patients, who have about a 77 percent chance, said Kate McDermott, a representative of the nonprofit organization Be the Match, which manages the largest marrow registry in the world. Of 22 million registrants, she said, only 1 percent were of South Asian descent.

Ms. Anwar’s family set out to publicize her plight on social media to encourage people to join the registry. They started a Facebook page called Team Liyna and promoted the hashtag #swabforliyna on Twitter and Instagram.

They were surprised by how quickly their campaign spread, among both everyday users and celebrities of South Asian descent, like the comedian Hasan Minhaj and the writer and actress Mindy Kaling.

“I was recently so moved by a young woman, Liyna, and her personal struggle to find a blood stem cell transplant match,” Ms. Kaling wrote on Facebook.

She added, “I encourage everyone to join if you can!”

Mr. Anwar said that his family’s efforts led around 12,000 people to join the registry, and that as many as five people received potentially lifesaving transplants from donors.

Ms. Anwar was not one of them. In June 2019 she received a stem cell transplant from her brother, who was about a 50 percent match, but her leukemia returned after a few months.

Liyna Sereen Anwar was born on Sept. 21, 1989, in Mission Viejo, Calif., to Siddique and Sajida (Ikramuddin) Anwar. Her father, an engineer, and her mother, a medical assistant, immigrated to the United States from India before she was born.

She graduated from Trabuco Hills High School in Mission Viejo in 2007, then earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2011. Working at a local newspaper and on a college radio station fostered her interest in journalism.

Her brother said that growing up as a Muslim Indian-American in a predominantly white milieu influenced her to pursue stories of “people who aren’t as out there in the open.”

Ms. Anwar produced podcasts and radio content for outlets like NPR, The Los Angeles Times and StoryCorps. Her brother said that she preferred reporting stories to sharing her own, and it took some coaxing to persuade her to use her illness to highlight the shortage of South Asian stem cell donors.

At StoryCorps, a nonprofit that records and preserves the tales of ordinary people, Ms. Anwar helped produce radio segments featuring John Torres Jr., who reminisced about his father, a masked Mexican-style wrestler; Josh Stepakoff, who discussed an anti-Semitic shooting he survived in 1999; and the brothers of Balbir Sodhi, a Sikh man who was killed in a hate crime after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

She joined The Los Angeles Times as a senior podcast producer in 2018, the same year her leukemia was diagnosed. One of her final projects was producing “Asian Enough,” a podcast about Asian-American identity. She continued working on it from a hospital bed when her condition worsened.

Ms. Anwar lived with her parents in Mission Viejo after she learned she had leukemia. Her brother and parents are her only immediate survivors.

Ms. Anwar’s efforts to raise awareness about disparities in stem cell and bone marrow donors live on. Ms. McDermott said Be the Match was still registering donors in Ms. Anwar’s name on its website.

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