How Can a Stem Cell Transplant Help a Patient with Cancer? 

Written by: Rob Levy
Medically Reviewed By: Arnold S. Freedman, MD

Stem cell transplants are used to treat patients with a variety of blood-related cancers. The goal of a transplant is always the same: to cure the disease or significantly extend a patient’s life. 

Stem cell transplants can be used in the treatment of the following cancers: 

Why might a patient need a stem cell transplant? 

Transplants of blood-forming — or “hematopoietic” — stem cells are used to treat cancers (and some non-malignant blood disorders) in which the bone marrow or blood cells have become diseased. Marrow, the spongy material within the bones, is where the major components of blood are made: red blood cells, which deliver oxygen to cells throughout the body and carry away carbon dioxide; white blood cells which defend against disease; and platelets needed for clotting.

When cancer develops in this tissue, the consequences can be profound: a decreased ability to fend off disease, fatigue and weakness, weight loss, easy bleeding or bruising, and other problems. 

A stem cell transplant makes it possible to wipe out the diseased marrow and blood cells and generate new marrow and new blood cells and platelets, giving a fresh start to the patient’s blood supply. 

Who is eligible for a stem cell transplant? 

To be eligible for a transplant, patients need to meet certain criteria involving their age, previous treatments, and overall health, as well as the type and stage of their cancer, the likelihood that it will respond to treatment, and, crucially, the availability of a suitable donor or ability to use the patient’s own stem cells. 

What does a stem cell transplant involve? 

Autologous transplants use a patient’s own stem cells. Prior to the transplant, patients receive high doses of chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy to kill cancer cells throughout the body, which has the side effect of destroying the bone marrow. The transplanted stem cells “rescue” the patient by rebuilding the bone marrow and regenerating the blood supply. 

Allogeneic transplants use stem cells collected from a compatible donor. This type of transplant can also involve high doses of chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. The transplanted stem cells produce white blood cells that launch an anti-cancer attack called the graft-versus-leukemia effect. Another type of allogeneic transplant, known as a reduced intensity transplant, uses lower doses of chemotherapy to create space in the bone marrow for the new, donor stem cells to grow. White blood cells made from the donor cells do the bulk of tumor cell killing. One of the major benefits of a donor cell transplant is the introduction of a fresh immune system that can have a powerful graft-versus-leukemia or graft-versus-lymphoma effect. 

[Learn more about the process involved in a stem cell transplant.]

How long does it take to recover from a stem cell transplant? 

It usually takes from several weeks to several months for patients to recover fully from a transplant. During this time, the new marrow is regenerating the blood supply, including the legions of white blood cells that that fight infection.

Recovering patients are advised to:

  • practice good hygiene
  • wash their hands often with antibacterial soap and alcohol-based sanitizers
  • avoid people who are sick or recently have been sick
  • ear a mask when in public or near strangers

Mild exercise is recommended as patients regain their strength. 

What are the most common complications of a transplant? 

While stem cell transplants benefit tens of thousands of patients every year, the procedure also carries certain risks. One is that the transplanted cells aren’t effective against a patient’s illness. Another is failure to engraft, which occurs when the donor stem cells fail to take hold in the patient’s bone marrow and generate blood cells. Another is graft-versus-host disease, which occurs when stem cells transplanted from a donor produce immune system cells that attack the recipient’s tissues and organs. 

About the Medical Reviewer

Arnold S. Freedman, MD

Dr. Freedman is a Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, a member of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Department of Medical Oncology, and an attending physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dr. Freedman has focused on clinical and laboratory research in non-Hodgkin's lymphomas. A graduate of Brandeis University, Dr. Freedman received his M.D. from University of Massachusetts Medical School, and came to Dana-Farber as a fellow in medical oncology in 1982. Dr. Freedman's research interests have focused on the development of new therapies for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. This includes efforts are toward enhancing the effects of antibody based therapies and understanding how the tumor microenvironment can be manipulated in the treatment of lymphomas.