Stem Cell Transplant (Peripheral Blood, Bone Marrow, and Cord Blood Transplants)

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What’s it like to donate stem cells?

People usually volunteer to donate stem cells for an allogeneic transplant either because they have a loved one or friend who needs a match or because they want to help people. Some people give their stem cells so they can get them back later for an autologous transplant.

If you want to donate stem cells for someone else

People who want to donate stem cells or join a volunteer registry can speak with their doctors or contact the National Marrow Donor Program to find the nearest donor center. Potential donors are asked questions to make sure they are healthy enough to donate and don’t pose a risk of infection to the recipient. For more information about donor eligibility guidelines, contact the National Marrow Donor Program or the donor center in your area (see the “To learn more” section for contact information).

A simple blood test is done to learn the potential donor’s HLA type. There may be a one-time, tax-deductible fee of about $75 to $100 for this test. People who join a volunteer donor registry will most likely have their tissue type kept on file until they reach age 60.

Pregnant women who want to donate their baby’s cord blood should make arrangements for it early in the pregnancy, at least before the third trimester. Donation is safe, free, and does not affect the birth process. For more, see the section called “How umbilical cord blood is collected.”

Informed consent and further testing: Before the donation

If a possible stem cell donor is a good match for a recipient, steps are taken to teach the donor about the transplant process and make sure he or she is making an informed decision. If a person decides to donate, a consent form must be signed after the risks of donating are fully discussed. The donor is not pressured take part. It’s always a choice.

If a person decides to donate, a medical exam and blood tests will be done to make sure the donor is in good health.

How bone marrow stem cells are collected

This process is often called bone marrow harvest, and it’s done in an operating room. The donor is put under general anesthesia (given medicine to put them into a deep sleep so they don’t feel pain) while bone marrow is taken. The marrow cells are taken from the back of the pelvic (hip) bone. A large needle is put through the skin and into the back of the hip bone. It’s pushed through the bone to the center and the thick, liquid marrow is pulled out through the needle. This is repeated several times until enough marrow has been taken out (harvested). The amount taken depends on the donor’s weight. Often, about 10% of the donor’s marrow, or about 2 pints, are collected. This takes about 1 to 2 hours. The body will replace these cells within 4 to 6 weeks. If blood was taken from the donor before the marrow donation, it’s often given back to the donor at this time.

After the bone marrow is harvested, the donor is taken to the recovery room while the anesthesia wears off. The donor may then be taken to a hospital room and watched until fully alert and able to eat and drink. In most cases, the donor is free to leave the hospital within a few hours or by the next morning.

The donor may have soreness, bruising, and aching at the back of the hips and lower back for a few days. Over-the-counter acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen) are helpful. Some people may feel tired or weak, and have trouble walking for a few days. The donor might be told to take iron supplements until the number of red blood cells returns to normal. Most donors are back to their usual schedule in 2 to 3 days. But it could take 2 or 3 weeks before they feel completely back to normal.

There are few risks for donors and serious complications are rare. But bone marrow donation is a surgical procedure. Rare complications could include anesthesia reactions, infection, transfusion reactions (if a blood transfusion of someone else’s blood is needed — this doesn’t happen if you get your own blood), or injury at the needle insertion sites. Problems such as sore throat or nausea may be caused by anesthesia.

Allogeneic stem cell donors do not have to pay for the harvesting because the recipient’s insurance company usually covers the cost.

Once the cells are collected, they are filtered through fine mesh screens. This prevents bone or fat particles from being given to the recipient. For an allogeneic or syngeneic transplant, the cells may be given to the recipient through a vein soon after they are harvested. Sometimes they are frozen, such as when the donor lives far away from the recipient.

How peripheral blood stem cells are collected

For several days before starting the donation process, the donor is given a daily injection (shot) of filgrastim (Neupogen®). This is a growth-factor drug that causes the bone marrow to make and release stem cells into the blood. Filgrastim can cause some side effects, the most common being bone pain and headaches. These may be helped by over-the-counter acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like aspirin or ibuprofen). Nausea, sleeping problems, low-grade (mild) fevers, and tiredness are other possible effects. These go away once the injections are finished and collection is completed.

Blood is removed through a catheter (a thin, flexible plastic tube) that is put in a large vein in the arm or chest. It’s then cycled through a machine that separates the stem cells from the other blood cells. The stem cells are kept while the rest of the blood is returned to the donor through the same catheter. This process is called apheresis (a-fur-REE-sis). It takes about 2 to 4 hours and is done as an outpatient procedure. Often the process needs to be repeated daily for a few days, until enough stem cells have been collected.

Possible side effects of the catheter can include trouble placing the catheter in the vein, a collapsed lung from catheter placement, blockage of the catheter, or infection of the catheter or at the area where it enters the vein. Blood clots are another possible side effect. During the apheresis procedure donors may have problems caused by low calcium levels from the anti-coagulant drug used to keep the blood from clotting in the machine. These can include feeling lightheaded or tingly, and having chills or muscle cramps. These go away after donation is complete, but may be treated by giving the donor calcium supplements.

The process of donating cells for yourself (autologous stem cell donation) is pretty much the same as when someone donates them for someone else (allogeneic donation). It’s just that in autologous stem cell donation the donor is also the recipient, giving stem cells for his or her own use later on. For some people, there are a few differences. For instance, sometimes chemotherapy (chemo) is given before the filgrastim is used to tell the body to make stem cells. Also, sometimes it can be hard to get enough stem cells from a person with cancer. Even after several days of apheresis, there may not be enough for the transplant. This is more likely to be a problem if the patient has had certain kinds of chemo in the past, or if they have an illness that affects their bone marrow.

Sometimes a second drug called plerixafor (Mozobil®) is used along with filgrastim in people with non-Hodgkin lymphoma or multiple myeloma. This boosts the stem cell numbers in the blood, and helps reduce the number of apheresis sessions needed to get enough stem cells. It may cause nausea, diarrhea, and sometimes, vomiting. There are medicines to help if these symptoms become a problem. Rarely the spleen can enlarge and even rupture. This can cause severe internal bleeding and requires emergency medical care. The patient should tell the doctor right away if they have any pain in their left shoulder or under their left rib cage which can be symptoms of this emergency.

How umbilical cord blood is collected

Parents can donate their newborn’s cord blood to volunteer or public cord blood banks at no cost. This process does not pose any health risk to the infant. Cord blood transplants use blood that would otherwise be thrown away.

After the umbilical cord is clamped and cut, the placenta and umbilical cord are cleaned. The cord blood is put into a sterile container, mixed with a preservative, and frozen until needed.

Remember that if you want to donate or bank (save) your child’s cord blood, you will need to arrange it before the baby is born. Some banks require you to set it up before the 28th week of pregnancy, although others accept later setups. Among other things, you will be asked to answer health questions and sign a consent form.

Many hospitals collect cord blood for donation, which makes it easier for parents to donate. For more about donating your newborn’s cord blood, call 1-800-MARROW2 (1-800-627-7692) or visit Be the Match.

Privately storing a baby’s cord blood for future use is not the same as donating cord blood. It’s covered in the section called “Other transplant issues.”


Last Medical Review: 10/02/2013
Last Revised: 10/02/2013