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From OncoLog, April-May 2011, Vol. 56, No. 4-5

Saving a Life by Donating Stem Cells
Graphic: House Call

Facts about stem cell transplants

Stem cell transplantation can be a life-saving treatment for many patients affected by various diseases. Leukemia, for example, attacks patients’ bone marrow, which produces stem cells. Stem cells can mature into any of the types of blood cells needed to transport oxygen and fight infection in the body. Fortunately, stem cell transplantation can restore the ability of the bone marrow to produce blood cells. Among the other diseases that may be treated with stem cell transplantation are lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and sickle cell anemia.

Types of transplants

There are three types of stem cell transplants: those in which patients receive their own previously removed stem cells, those in which patients receive stem cells from a relative, and those in which patients receive stem cells from a volunteer donor who is not related. Receiving cells that closely match a patient’s own stem cells reduces the risk that the patient’s immune system will reject the transplanted cells. Close relatives are more likely to have stem cells that match the transplant recipient’s stem cells. Patients who don’t have a close relative with matching stem cells must hope that a match will be found through volunteer donor registries.

Stem cells can be obtained from a donor’s bone marrow or from the blood circulating in the body (called peripheral blood). Both methods of donation are very safe but can cause discomfort and side effects. Stem cells can also be donated from umbilical cord blood after a baby is born.

Donating stem cells

Photo: Cheek swab
A simple DNA test can be used to find a match for a stem cell transplant. ŠiStockphoto.com/PeJo29

During bone marrow donation, the donor is placed under anesthesia at a hospital, and a needle is inserted into the hip bone to remove some bone marrow. The donated bone marrow is filtered to remove red blood cells and tiny pieces of bone. The bone marrow is then either given to a transplant recipient or frozen for future use. The donor then recovers in the hospital for a few hours or overnight. After bone marrow donation, the donor may have lower back pain, fatigue, and stiffness for a few days. Most bone marrow donors completely recover within 3 weeks as the body forms new stem cells.

Peripheral blood stem cell donation has two steps. First, for 5 days before the donation, the donor receives injections of a drug called filgrastim. This drug increases the number of stem cells in the blood. The second step is much like a plasma donation. Blood is removed through a needle inserted in the donor’s arm, the stem cells are filtered from the blood, and the blood is returned to the donor in the other arm. The donation process takes just a few hours.

Before donating peripheral blood stem cells, the donor may have a headache and bone and muscle aches as a side effect of filgrastim. During the donation, the donor may feel a tingling sensation around the mouth, fingers, and toes. Most peripheral blood stem cell donors recover fully within 2 weeks.

Donating cord blood

Pregnant women can donate their baby’s umbilical cord blood, which is rich in stem cells. The blood is collected from the placenta and umbilical cord just after the baby is born. The blood is then tested to see if it contains enough stem cells for use in a transplant. If the blood is suitable for transplantation, it is frozen, listed with the National Marrow Donor Program, and stored until a match is found for a transplant recipient. The donation poses no risk to the mother or baby.

Becoming a donor

To donate umbilical cord blood, you should contact a cord blood bank in your area at least 6 weeks before your due date. The National Marrow Donor Program provides a list of cord blood banks and collaborating hospitals, as well as options for women who wish to donate but are not delivering at such hospitals.

You can become a bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cell donor by joining the National Marrow Donor Program’s Be The Match Registry. When you join, you can go to a donor center in your area where a DNA sample will be taken by either a blood test or a cheek swab, or you can complete the registration process online and have a DNA test kit sent to your home. In some cases, there is a nominal fee to join the registry, but the costs of the donation itself are typically paid by the transplant recipient’s medical insurance.

Stem cell donation involves some inconvenience and discomfort, but saving a life makes it worth the effort.

— Markeda Wade

For more information, talk to your physician, call the MD Anderson Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy Center at 713-792-6100, call the MD Anderson Cord Blood Bank at 713-563-8000 or 866-869-5111, or visit the National Marrow Donor Program at www.marrow.org.

Other articles in OncoLog, April-May 2011 issue:

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