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Bone Marrow Transplant - Frequently Asked Questions

What is bone marrow?

Bone marrow is a soft tissue found in the centre of certain bones in your body. It is this bone marrow which creates stem cells. Stem cells are the 'building blocks', which can grow into any of the other normal blood cells such as red cells, which carry oxygen, white cells, which fight infection, or platelets which stop bleeding.

Why do we need bone marrow/stem cell donors?

There are a number of diseases that prevent a patient's bone marrow from working properly. These include leukaemia and aplastic anaemia as well as other diseases of the immune system. Although chemotherapy will successfully treat some of these patients, for many the only possibility of a cure is to have a stem cell transplant from a healthy donor. In about 30% of cases, a matched donor can be found from within the patient's family, such as a brother or sister.

The other 70% of patients have to rely on a matched volunteer donor, identified through the bone marrow registries such as The British Bone Marrow Registry (BBMR), Anthony Nolan and NHS Cord Blood Bank. We need to continue to recruit more donors, particularly from ethnic communities. This is important as finding a suitable match, whenever a bone marrow/stem cell transplant is needed, is often difficult due to the lack of appropriate volunteers on the Registry.

How do I donate?

There are two possible ways of donating stem cells that you may be asked to consider.

The first, and most frequently used, is to donate stem cells from circulating blood. For the four days preceding the donation a nurse will inject you with a drug which vastly increases the number of stem cells in your circulating blood. On the fifth day you will have a blood test to check that you have enough circulating stem cells. You will then be connected to a cell-separator machine, without the need for a general anaesthetic. The machine collects the stem cells from your blood via a vein in one arm, returning the blood to your body through a vein in your other arm. If you are already a platelet donor you will be familiar with this type of machine. Occasionally you may be asked back on the sixth day for a further donation, if the dose of cells obtained is not sufficient.

The second method is donation of bone marrow itself, which involves the removal of stem cells from your hip bones. This is done using a needle and syringe under a general anaesthetic in a hospital. Although this is not a surgical operation, there will be marks on the skin made by the needle. As there may be some discomfort where the needle has been inserted, you will need to stay in hospital for up to 48 hours and have a period of recovery at home of up to five days.

Where will I make the donation?

Stem cell donations are given in hospitals or at a clinic and you can bring someone with you for support.

After your donation

For the first twelve months following your donation you will be contacted regularly to ensure you do not experience any adverse reactions. If you need to take time off work for the procedure you will be entitled to re-imbursement of expenses. These details will be covered in your medical interview when the procedures are explained.

What are the risks?

Stem cell donation is very safe. However, no medical procedure is entirely without risk. Both forms of stem cell collection mentioned on this website may involve some temporary discomfort in your bones and any small risks involved will be fully explained before you donate.

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