Most healthy individuals age 18 to 44 could be potential blood and marrow stem cell donors. For some people, finding the right donor for a bone marrow transplant may be their only hope for a cure. UCLA Health helps bone marrow transplant recipients, their families and donors understand the process and the risks – and find the right match.
The National Marrow Donor Program runs a bone marrow registry. Potential donors can join, be tested and add their names to list of people willing to donate bone marrow to anyone in need. Whether you want to become part of the bone marrow registry or donate to a relative, the donation process is the same.
How to donate bone marrow
For a bone marrow transplant to be successful, the donor and the recipient have to be well matched. Unlike matching blood types, matching bone marrow stem cells is a bit more complicated.
To see if you are a potential bone marrow match, you will be tested to find out what type of human leukocyte antigen (HLA) you have. HLA is a protein found on most cells in your body — including those in your immune system. The closer the HLA match, the better chance that a bone marrow transplant will succeed. Bone marrow produces the infection-fighting white blood cells that are key to a functioning immune system.
The good news is that you don’t have to actually donate bone marrow to find out if you’re a match. The process starts with a simple cheek swab to provide a sample of your DNA. If you are a basic match for a recipient based on that test, you’ll have additional blood tests or cheek swabs. Those results will give doctors more details about your HLA type.
If you would like to be tested as a match for a relative who is being treated at UCLA Health’s Blood and Bone Marrow Transplant & Cellular Therapies Program, contact us. The patient’s doctor will arrange all of your testing and answer any questions you have about becoming a donor. Find out more about how a recipient prepares for bone marrow transplant.
Bone marrow donation procedure
If you are a match for someone needing a transplant, you will start the process of donating bone marrow stem cells. This process is the same whether you are donating for a relative or for someone using the National Marrow Donor Program registry.
Before your donation, you will spend a couple of days undergoing a consultation that includes:
- Thorough health evaluation
- Medical history
- Blood tests
- Filling out consent forms
- Meeting with doctors about the donation procedure
How stem cells are extracted
There are two ways to obtain the stem cells used in a bone marrow transplant. The transplant recipient’s doctor will determine which method is best for his or her condition. The two procedures are:
- Bone marrow harvesting: Doctors use needles to withdraw liquid bone marrow from both sides of the back of your pelvic bones. This is a surgical procedure that usually takes one hour. You will receive anesthesia so that you feel no pain during the extraction. Most people go home from the hospital that same day, but some donors stay overnight for observation.
- Apheresis: Apheresis is a nonsurgical, outpatient procedure. Instead of collecting bone marrow, it allows for collection of peripheral blood stem cells.
- Preparation: For five days before apheresis, you will get injections of filgrastim. This drug stimulates your bone marrow to make more stem cells and release them into your bloodstream.
- Procedure: On the day of the donation, expect to spend up to eight hours at the collection facility. A catheter (thin, flexible tube) is placed in a large vein in your arm. The blood will flow into a machine that separates the stem cells from the blood. A catheter in your other arm transfers the remaining blood back to your body.
Bone marrow donation recovery
As you prepare to donate, you may be worried about possible bone marrow donation risks. The vast majority of donors experience few side effects — most of which are mild. Most donors report feeling completely recovered within a few weeks of their donation.
The side effects will vary depending on the type of donation procedure you had:
Side effects of bone marrow harvesting
The most common side effects of bone marrow harvesting are related to anesthesia. If you have general anesthesia, you may experience nausea or vomiting. If you have regional anesthesia (such as an epidural), you may have headaches or a decrease in blood pressure. There is a very small risk of having damage to bone, nerves or muscles in the pelvis during the extraction procedure.
Side effects of apheresis
Common side effects from the filgrastim injections include headache, bone or muscle aches, nausea, fatigue and insomnia. These typically diminish quickly after you finish taking the medication. During the donation procedure, you may have chills, tingling around the mouth, fingers and toes and muscle cramps. Your care team can slow down the procedure to help reduce these symptoms.
Joining the national bone marrow registry
The registry needs donors of all races and ethnicities to provide the best matches for the most patients. They accept donors between the ages of 18 and 60. But because bone marrow transplant is most successful with younger donors, people ages 18 to 44 are preferred.
Donors must be in excellent health. Certain diseases, medications, treatments and weight limits can exclude you from becoming a donor.
For more details about medical qualifications and how to donate bone marrow, go to Be The Match.
If you are interested in donating bone marrow to a relative in our care, please contact our Adult Blood and Bone Marrow Transplant & Cellular Therapies Program at 310-206-6909.