Why Do Stem Cells Have a Strong Odor?

stem cells, freezer
A technician removes stem cells from a freezer.

The blood-forming stem cells used in transplants carry hope, promise, and, as many patients report, a strong odor. What gives the cells this distinct smell, which has been compared to that of creamed corn?

It comes from the protective solution in which the cells are frozen and stored, rather than from the cells themselves, says Richard Kaufman, MD, medical director of the Adult Transfusion Service at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and William Savage, MD, PhD, medical director of the Kraft Family Blood Donor Center at Dana-Farber.

When blood-making, or hematopoietic, stem cells are collected from a patient at the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center who is undergoing an autologous transplant – a “self” transplant in which the cells are later returned to the patient – the cells are processed and stored in Dana-Farber’s Connell and O’Reilly Families Cell Manipulation Core Facility.

The cells are frozen using a protective substance called dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO), which prevents them from getting damaged. When it’s time to perform the transplant, the cells are thawed and infused intravenously back into the patient. It is the DMSO that gives stem cell products their characteristic and peculiar odor.

That’s good news for patients receiving stem cells, as once the cells are out of the DMSO, they lose that identifiable smell.