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Fighting leukemia

Saving lives between lectures

München, 06/20/2014

Since her grandfather died of leukemia, LMU student Katharina Zech has been fighting a personal battle against blood cancer. Last year, the AIAS, the association she founded for the purpose, organized the largest search for stem-cell donors ever carried out at a university. Donor matches were identified for five patients – including the wife of boxing world champion Robert Guerrero. Katharina’s dedication has now been rewarded with the presentation of the “Startsocial Prize” to the AIAS by Angela Merkel.

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In the summer of 2013, the headlines in the tabloids were euphorious: “German saves gravely ill wife of world champion boxer” wrote one, “American patient thanks her savior from Munich” said another. In this case the savior was not a celestial being, but an LMU student by the name of Katharina Zech. The 24-year-old began her studies at LMU in 2009, and is currently doing a Master’s in Philosophy and Neurosciences.

Less than two years earlier, no one could have predicted that the Munich native would soon make front-page headlines. At that point, Katharina Zech had done a practical at Munich’s Hellabrunn Zoo while still at school, served as honorary head of the Savoy Ballroom Dancing Club in the city, and participated in the Tuscany Dog Project in Pisa, a study designed to observe the social behavior of feral dogs. But at the age of 19, she registered with the German Database of Bone-Marrow Donors (DKMS) – a decision which would alter the course of her life.

The DKMS is a non-profit organization dedicated to the fight against blood cancer. Katharina was very impressed by the work being done by the association to inform the public about leukemia – and not only because her grandfather had previously succumbed to the disease. She took part in seminars organized by the DKMS to learn more about the topic and the life-saving potential of stem-cell therapy, and began, in a voluntary capacity, to help organize campaigns to persuade people to register with the DKMS. Then, in 2010, a recipient was identified for her own stem cells.

Casey Guerrero, the wife of six-time World Champion boxer Robert Guerrero, had been diagnosed with leukemia. None of her immediate relatives carried cells suitable for transplantation. Katharina Zech’s cells were confirmed as the closest match, and she was asked to donate a sample of bone marrow. She promptly set off for the University Clinic in Dresden, where representatives of German and American donor organizations supervised the isolation of the appropriate stem cells from her bone marrow. These were the cells that Casey Guerrero subsequently received – the cells that would save her life.

After her recovery, Casey Guerrero invited Katharina to visit her in her home in Tucson, Arizona, where she met Casey’s family and, of course, her famous husband, Robert. “Then there were television and newspaper interviews, and a role in a short documentary film, which used Casey Guerrero‘s story to raise public awareness about leukemia and the prospects of a cure,” Katharina recalls.

When Katharina, who holds a Deutschland Fellowship, returned home, she was more determined than ever to do all she could to help other patients with leukemia. In addition to undertaking research projects, educational trips and working as a research assistant, she still found time in 2013 to set up the student Initiative AIAS. The stated purpose of the association is to organize campaigns to register prospective stem-cell donors from among university students and staffs and, in particular, to inform students about the process and potential of stem-cell donation.

Her motivation comes from “one’s duty to humanity”, she says. This conviction also stimulated her to choose Neurosciences as the subject of her Master‘s course. In addition, she is taking courses in Philosophy because “as the basis for ethics, Philosophy serves as a source of normative authority“, she explains.

Soon after its establishment, the AIAS carried out its first registration campaign at LMU, in association with the Technical University of Munich (TUM), the School of Applied Languages, the School of Music and Theater, and the University of Applied Sciences in Munich. “Among our patrons were the Presidents of LMU and TUM, and the Bavarian Minister for the Environment, Marcel Huber” says Katharina (who has already won the Weißer Engel, the Bavarian State Prize for exemplary contributions to health care) with a hint of wholly justified pride.

This first campaign succeeded in recruiting no less than 2333 students as potential stem-cell donors. In fact, it was the most successful campaign of this kind ever carried at a university anywhere in the world. The valuable work of the AIAS received further public recognition this month, when the association won the “Startsocial Prize” and its founder attended a reception given by Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is the Prize’s patron. Now Katharina is making headlines in the quality papers. The Süddeutsche Zeitung titled its report “A Remarkable Drive Against Blood Cancer”. – And planning for the next campaign has already begun. dl