What Is a Bone Marrow Transplant?

This Procedure Replaces Unhealthy Stem Cells With Healthy Ones

Svetlana Rechitsky, Ph.D., director of the Preimplantation DNA Lab conducts medical tests October 10, 2000 in the institute''s Chicago laboratory. A team of research doctors recently transplanted stem cells taken from the umbilical cord of a baby boy whose embryo was chosen specifically to save his six year old sister who suffers from Franconi''s anemia, an inherited disorder that causes a massive failure of bone marrow cell production and which is usually fatal. The sister, Molly Nash, is recovering from the $100,000 procedure at a Minneapolis hospital. Critics of the procedure warn that the practice of cell transplantation raises ethical issues and that 'creation for donation' might one day lead to 'designing your descendants' for pre-screened traits such as eye color, strong limbs or intelligence.
Tim Boyle/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A bone marrow transplant is when special cells (called stem cells) that are normally found in the bone marrow are taken out, filtered, and given back either to the same person or to another person. Of note, because we now mostly derive stem cells needed for this procedure from the blood instead of having to harvest bone marrow, bone marrow transplant is now more commonly referred to as stem cell transplant.

Why Is Bone Marrow Transplant Done?

Bone marrow produces stem cells. These stem cells eventually develop into blood cells. Bone marrow is a critical part of the body because it is the body's main blood cell "factory." If something is wrong with the marrow, a person can become very ill and even die.

In diseases such as leukemia and aplastic anemia, the bone marrow is unhealthy. The purpose of a bone marrow transplant is to replace unhealthy stem cells with healthy ones. This can treat or even cure the disease.​​

Two Types of Bone Marrow Transplants

  • Autologous bone marrow transplant - The donor is the person him/herself.
  • Allogenic bone marrow transplant - The donor is another person whose tissue has the same genetic type as the person needing the transplant (recipient). Because tissue types are inherited, similar to hair or eye color, it is more likely that the recipient will find a suitable donor in a brother or sister. This, however, happens only 25 to 30 percent of the time.

    If a family member does not match the recipient, the National Marrow Donor Program Registry database can be searched for an unrelated individual whose tissue type is a close match. It is more likely that a donor who comes from the same racial or ethnic group as the recipient will have the same tissue traits. The chances of a minority person in the United States finding a registry match are lower than that of a white person (see the article, Marrow Matches For Minorities Are Harder to Find).

    Sources of Bone Marrow Stem Cells

    • Bone marrow harvest: Collecting stem cells by taking them directly out of the bone.
    • Apheresis: Collecting stem cells by filtering the blood for peripheral (circulating) blood cells (PBSC).
    • Umbilical cord blood: Stem cells are filtered from blood in the umbilical cord after a baby is born.

      The majority of marrow stem cell transplants are made using PBSC collected by apheresis, since this method has better results for both the donor and the recipient.

      What the Donor Experiences

      In most cases, a donation is made using circulating stem cells (PBSC) collected by apheresis. First, the donor receives injections for a few days of a medication that causes stem cells to move out of the bone marrow and into the blood. For the stem cell collection, the donor is connected to a machine by a needle inserted in the vein (like for blood donation). Blood is taken from the vein, filtered by the machine to collect the stem cells, then returned back to the donor through a needle in the other arm. There is almost no need for a recovery time with this procedure.

      If stem cells are collected by bone marrow harvest (much less likely), the donor will go to the operating room and while asleep under anesthesia, a needle will be inserted into either the hip or the breastbone to take out some bone marrow. After awakening, he/she may feel some pain where the needle was inserted.

      What the Recipient Experiences

      A bone marrow transplant is a difficult procedure to go through. Usually, the person receives high doses of chemotherapy and/or radiation to eliminate whatever bone marrow he/she has left to make room for the new marrow transplant.

      Once this is done, the new stem cells are put into the person intravenously, similar to a blood transfusion. The stem cells then find their way to the bone and start to grow and produce more cells (called engraftment).

      Serious problems can occur during the time that the bone marrow is gone or very low. Infections are common, as is anemia, and low platelets in the blood can cause dangerous bleeding internally. Recipients often receive blood transfusions to treat these problems while they are waiting for the new stem cells to start growing.

      Are You Willing to Donate?

      If you'd like to become a volunteer donor, the process is straightforward and simple.

      Anyone between the ages of 18 and 60 and in good health can become a donor. There is a form to fill out and a blood sample to give; you can find all the information you need at the National Marrow Donor Program Web site. You can join a donor drive in your area or go to a local Donor Center to have the blood test done.

      When a person volunteers to be a donor, his/her particular blood tissue traits, as determined by a special blood test (histocompatibility antigen test), are recorded in the Registry. This "tissue typing" is different than a person's A, B, or O blood type. The Registry record also contains contact information for the donor, should a tissue type match be made.


      "The Donation Procedure." Donor Information. Oct 2005. National Marrow Donor Program. 25 Jul 2007.

      Continue Reading