A cotton swab and a saliva sample are all
it takes to register as a potential bone marrow donor. KATHARINA HARF has raised the global profile of the German Bone Marrow Donor Database (DKMS)
t was an unexpected turn of events. Katharina Harf was well on the way to forging a career for herself in the world of business. With a degree from Harvard, she had
worked as an analyst at PricewaterhouseCoopers, an intern at Hugo Boss and a management trainee at Louis Vuitton before ob- taining a place on Columbia University’s executive programme. Af- ter just a few lectures at the prestigious university in Manhattan, however, her career plan lay in tatters. Harf, who describes herself as extremely competitive and tenacious, quit her studies. Business school wasn’t right for her – but what to do instead?
Her father came to the rescue. Peter Harf, co-founder of non- profit organisation DKMS, which is committed to fighting blood cancer, proposed an ambitious project to his younger daughter: why not establish DKMS’s first international presence in the USA? A third of DKMS stem cell donations in Germany were already be- ing used to treat blood cancer patients in America, and Katharina Harf’s job would be to launch a US branch to provide them with better support. She would be able to put her practical experience to good use, as well as a number of business skills acquired from her father. Harf senior is a well-known German businessman and man- aging partner of Luxembourg-based JAB Holding, which manages the investments of the German billionaire Reimann family, and chairman of the listed perfumery and cosmetics group Coty. He previously spent many years as CEO of the New York cosmetics group, in which JAB Holding is the majority shareholder.
Katharina Harf was 26 at the time, and freely admits that she had no idea of the scale of the task she faced. “I was never so excit- ed to take on a project,” says Harf, speaking via video conference from the sun-drenched patio of her Los Angeles home. She was given a desk at the Coty head office in Manhattan and a computer, and set to work.
That was in 2004. DKMS USA now has over 1.1 million registered donors and has found almost 4,500 matches to date. DKMS now ranks as an international organisation, with operations in Chile, the UK, India, Poland and South Africa, as well as the USA and Ger- many. It is the world’s biggest blood stem cell donor database, with over 10.5 million potential life savers and has a 1,000-strong workforce.
Further internationalisation is vital if more patients are to sur- vive blood cancer: according to Harf, it essentially comes down to finding a good HLA (Human Leukocyte Antigen) match. HLA mark- ers differ genetically, as well as from region to region. DKMS is consequently channelling its efforts into registering as many donors from different ethnic backgrounds as possible in its data- base in a bid to improve the survival rates of those suffering from blood cancer and other blood disorders. In putting patients in touch with stem cell donors around the globe, the organisation has effectively saved many lives. Since no more than 30 per cent of pa- tients find a suitable match from within their own families, the majority are reliant on stem cell donations from strangers. By the end of 2020, DKMS had facilitated almost 90,000 stem cell trans- plants around the world – around 38 per cent of the global total.
arf is the executive chairwoman of DKMS US, the vice- chairwoman of the foundation board of DKMS globally, and acts as the public face of the organisation. Not only
does DKMS find suitable donors for blood cancer sufferers, but it also provides access to therapies, and supports the ongoing devel- opment of blood cancer treatments via its own research activities. Harf works extremely closely with DKMS’s global chief executive officer Elke Neujahr on the strategic development of the global DKMS operation. From the outset, Harf was driven by the idea of supporting patients, motivating more people to register as stem cell donors, helping blood cancer sufferers and their families to cope with a life-threatening condition and to navigate the health care system, and organising the DKMS fund-raising galas featur- ing appearances by actors, musicians and other celebrities to bring in millions in donations. For the 44-year-old, this is “not a job, it’s a part of me” – the dream of beating blood cancer has become a mission in life.
This is easy to believe, as she paid a high price for the opportunity to fight this battle. Harf’s mother, Mechtild, contracted leukaemia in 1990, possibly as a result of the radiation therapy she had under- gone to treat breast cancer, and needed a stem cell transplant. Un- like in the USA and the UK, however, no German national database of donors existed at the time – just a few small data sets scattered in cities around the country. A mere 3,000 people had registered as potential donors. Because no suitable donor could be found for the 44-year-old Mechtild, Peter Harf established “Hilfe für Leukämiekranke” in early 1991; DKMS was subsequently born from this private initiative. Relatives and friends organised various ac- tivities and campaigns, and the number of registered donors grew to 68,000 within the space of a year. Despite all the efforts of Peter Harf to save the life of his beloved wife and the mother of his daughters, she sadly died from leukaemia in September 1991, when Katharina was fourteen years old.
Today, Katharina Harf is a mother herself – to a bright daughter who, at the age of eight, proudly informs people that “Mom saves lives”. The fate of her own mother, whom she lost at a young age, is a wound that will never heal completely, according to Katharina Harf. But the path she has taken not only ensures that her mother is constantly in her thoughts: her work “also enables me to show my daughter how important it is to help other people.”
TEXT: Helene Laube
ILLUSTRATIONS: Carla Fuentes
DKMS is not
just a job for me,
it’s a part of me
Katharina Harf studied philosophy, but is now
a big success in the world of laboratories and medi- cine. It all started with
a personal twist of fate
Born in Frankfurt in 1977, she moved to the USA with her father, sister and pater- nal grandparents in 1993. In 2004, after gaining a B.A. in philosophy at Harvard and working for various companies in New York, she launched the US branch of Ger- man organisation DKMS, which aims to find a suitable stem cell donor or provide access to therapies for every blood cancer sufferer – wherever they are in the world. Harf is the executive chairwoman of DKMS US, and has been vice-chairwoman of the foundation board of DKMS globally since 2019.
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