U.S. Baby Sparks Italy's First Bone Marrow Drive

Alessandro Palermo was watching TV in his home in Riomaggiore on Italy's famous Cinque Terre coast, when the photo of Giovanni caught his eye -- the baby's tiny mouth, big cheeks and bulging blue eyes went right to his heart.

An American baby of Italian/Greek descent was dying, and a desperate search was on for a compatible bone marrow donor who might save his life. Because Giovanni had no direct siblings and time was running out, finding the marrow for the baby was proving difficult.

Palermo recalled that it was a fleeting item on Italian state television, RAI International, and that it was soon eclipsed by the news of Anna Nicole Smith's death.

"Maybe it was because I was the new father of a 4-month-old baby," he told ABC News. "Maybe it was because of my American connection -- I worked for an American cruise company and have family in the U.S."

Whatever the reason, something about that baby made Palermo sit down and write to Michael Guglielmo, Giovanni's father.

Medical Scare for New Hampshire Newborn

Giovanni Guglielmo was born on July 24, 2006, an apparently healthy baby, to Christina M. Poulicakos and Michael A. Guglielmo of Belmont, N.H.

After a few weeks at home, Giovanni developed a fever, the first sign of what would eventually be diagnosed as a serious immune deficiency disorder known as NEMO that has caused conditions that make his skin terribly dry and make it difficult for him to digest food.

He is being cared for by Children's Hospital in Boston, and his only hope is a DNA-compatible bone marrow transplant.

Although Giovanni's parents have been successful in getting Giovanni's story out and raising awareness and widespread support in the United States, a donor has not yet been found, and Giovanni's decline continues.

"It's terrible. You would gladly lay down your own life for your own child but you don't have the opportunity to do that," Michael Guglielmo wrote on his Web site. "We are doing everything we can."

A recent transplant of compatible umbilical blood stem cells is hoped to improve his immune system, but Giovanni still needs a bone marrow transplant to survive.

There is a one in four chance that a close relative can be a bone marrow donor, but Giovanni has no direct siblings. Giovanni's mother checks daily with the National Marrow Donor Program Registry, which has about 11 million potential donors and is linked to international programs, but so far there has been no match.

Looking Overseas for a Match

Elena Levantini, an Italian researcher working at Harvard and familiar with Giovanni's case, suggested that, given Giovanni's heritage -- his mother is of Greek descent, and his father Italian -- a suitable donor might be found more easily in Mediterranean countries.

Levantini contacted the Italian consulate in Boston, and the appeal went out to Italy.

Palermo, a communications specialist for the Cinque Terre National Park in the northwestern region of Liguria in Italy, says he knew very little about bone marrow transplants or stem cells until he happened upon the story of Giovanni.

But he did know something about communications, and after seeing Giovanni on TV that day he put that knowledge at Michael Guglielmo's disposal.

Palermo now runs a Web site in Italian for Giovanni, www.salviamogiovanni.org, and with the help of the Cinque Terre National Park, he organized the first bone marrow drive ever in Italy on March 17 in Riomaggiore. A dozen employees of the park gathered to get tested as potential donors.

"The response from the Cinque Terre was spontaneous," Palermo said. "The five Mediterranean villages on this stretch of coast are said to be founded by Greeks, and if that were not enough, there is a 100-year history of emigration to the U.S. from this area. Almost everyone here has relatives in the U.S."

Palermo's efforts have inspired a lot of potential donors: "More than 100 from all over Italy," he said proudly. With the help of Luca Oss Emer from the Alpine city of Trento, the number of potential donors in Italy comes close to 200.

That may not sound like a large number, but it is a start in a country where there is little awareness about the significance of donating bone marrow. It also takes more effort in Italy, where there is no cheek-swab test for potential donors. A blood test is needed, which entails a visit to a hospital with a blood-transfusion center.

There are 350,000 people in the Italian Register of Bone Marrow Donors, and to date 84 Italians have donated bone marrow to Americans in need, while American donors to Italy number 496.

The Italian Web site informs potential donors where to go and what to do in order to become donors and possibly help Giovanni. It tells Giovanni's story and has started to trace, with pride, the roots of Michael Guglielmo's family in Italy.

For the moment, Palermo and his colleagues are working hard for Giovanni.

"Giovanni is our symbol and inspiration," Palermo said. "But our effort is for all those who can benefit from a bone marrow transplant. We want people to know how you can save a life with so little."

"Of course," he said, "our first goal is to save Giovanni and bring him here to Riomaggiore for a big celebration!"

Now wouldn't Giovanni enjoy that.