Medically reviewed by Joseph H. Antin, MD
Thousands of people who face life-threatening blood diseases, such as leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma, require treatment with a stem cell transplantation (also referred to as a bone marrow transplantation). For many patients, the best treatment approach is an allogeneic transplant, in which healthy stem cells are collected from another person. The stem cell donor is selected based on how well his or her Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) markers match that of the patient.
Although a person’s HLA type is inherited from his or her parents, the likelihood of finding an HLA match with a family member is only 25 to 30 percent.
“Most people don’t have matched donors in the family, and if we’re going to provide stem cell transplants to cure these otherwise incurable diseases, we need to have a donor,” says Joseph Antin, MD, chief of the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center Adult Stem Cell Transplantation Program.
You can register as a bone marrow donor through the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP)’s Be The Match Registry®. You will fill out a health questionnaire and provide a sample of your cheek cells, which are collected through a mouth swab.
Below are five important things to know if you are thinking of becoming a bone marrow donor:
1. What does the stem cell donation process entail?
If a complete donor match is found, the patient’s transplant physician will determine the best way for the donor to provide stem cells—either from bone marrow or from peripheral (circulating) blood stem cells (PBSC). If the matched individual decides to go through with the donation process, he or she will sign an Intent to Donate form.
A bone marrow donation is a surgical procedure that takes place in a hospital operating room. During this 1 ½ to 2-hour process, doctors use needles to withdraw liquid bone marrow from the donor’s hipbone. PBSC donation is a non-surgical procedure, similar to donating platelets, that takes several hours over the course of 1 to 2 days.
2. Are there any side effects?
A bone marrow donor will receive either general or spinal anesthesia during the procedure. Common side effects can include lower back pain, fatigue, stiffness when walking, or bleeding at the collection site. Doctors typically prescribe pain medication after the procedure to ease any discomfort or side effects.
PBSC donors may feel tiredness, headache, muscle aches, and nausea.
3. What are the requirements to donate?
A donor must be in good health and should ideally be between the ages of 18 and 44. Transplant physicians select donors in this age range 90 percent of the time due to evidence of better outcomes for patients.
The NMDP requires individuals to be 18 because they must give informed consent; donating marrow is a voluntary procedure that involves surgery, and is not a lifesaving procedure for the donor.
4. What does it cost to donate?
All medical costs and travel expenses for the donation procedure are covered through the patient’s medical insurance or the NMDP’s Be The Match Registry®.
5. What if I cannot donate?
Individuals who cannot donate their stem cells can still help transplant patients by making a financial donation to Be The Match Registry®, sponsoring the registry membership of a donor between the ages of 18 and 44, or volunteering at a donor drive in their community.
For more information on becoming a stem cell donor, visit Dana-Farber’s Bone Marrow/Stem Cell Donor Services webpage or call 617-632-2561.