Lion King's Nala Needs Rare Bone Marrow Transplant

Fesity 11-year-old Shannon Tavarez diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia.

ByABC News
July 19, 2010, 2:57 PM

July 20, 2010 — -- Shannon Tavarez, a talented 11-year-old, competed against thousands of other star-struck young girls to win the part of young Nala, Simba's feisty feline girlfriend in the Broadway production of "The Lion King."

Now, she is hoping to beat the odds once more and find a bone marrow donor to help her fight the leukemia that has not only derailed her seven-month-young career but now threatens her life.

"It's a great feeling, performing for people and being young Nala, because she's tough and I feel like that's who I am through this whole experience," said Shannon.

Tavarez, who lives in New York City and is part African American and part Hispanic, needs a bone marrow transplant from someone who is a genetic match.

Both groups are underrepresented in the registry of potential bone-marrow donors. According to the National Bone Marrow Program, of the 7 million Americans listed as donors, only 7 percent, or about 550,000, are African-American. Only 3 percent are Hispanic and 2 percent Asian.

The first of two drives held by the bone marrow registry DKMS at New York's St. Malachy's, the actor's chapel, and got nearly 400 people to sign up; another one is scheduled for July 23 at the Minskoff Theater in Times Square.

"But that's not enough," said Katarina Harf, DKMS executive vice president. "We need thousands."

Those who would like to become bone marrow donors, can go online to DKMS and sign up for a swab kit that will be sent in the mail.

Results are sent to a lab for genetic testing and if it's a match for anyone in the database, including Shannon, the donor receives a call.

"We know minorities are underrepresented and have more varied DNA," she said. "It's like finding a needle in a haystack, looking for your genetic twin."

Shannon has no siblings. Non-African American or non-Hispanic donors are not excluded, but the likelihood of a good match is significantly less, according to Harf.

Tavarez got the role in the popular musical after her first-ever open audition at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. She had never appeared in a professional production, only in school recitals and plays.

"She is young Simba's girlfriend," said her mother, Odiney Brown, who works for the City of New York as a contract analyst for the Human Resources Administration. "She's the feisty, fierce lion. She really fears nothing."

Shannon attended Harlem School of the Arts for vocals and piano since the age of 3, and it was her coach who saw the notification for try-outs.

"I asked my mother if I could do it and she said, 'Sure, it will be fun,'" said Shannon. "I didn't think that day that I would get it. There were thousands of kids."