At UCLA Health, we’ve been performing successful bone marrow transplants for more than 40 years. Our Blood and Bone Marrow Transplant & Cellular Therapies Program continually finds new ways to make these lifesaving treatments more effective.
If you or a loved one is considering a bone marrow transplant — or if you are interested in becoming a bone marrow donor — you are likely to have questions about the procedure. Here, our expert team answers the most frequently asked questions.
What is a bone marrow transplant?
Bone marrow transplant (BMT) is a procedure used to treat certain cancers or other diseases of blood and bone marrow. BMT involves taking healthy bone marrow stem cells (usually from a donor) and placing them in a patient’s bloodstream.
After transplant, the healthy stem cells start regenerating more stem cells. The new cells help rebuild a more robust immune system, free of cancer. Find out more about us: Why choose UCLA Health for bone marrow transplants.
Is a bone marrow transplant the same as a stem cell transplant?
You may hear the terms “bone marrow transplant” and “stem cell transplant” used interchangeably, which can be confusing. The two terms describe the same treatment.
All transplants used to treat cancers of the blood or bone marrow involve stem cells. Stem cells can come from:
- Bone marrow (your own or a donor’s)
- Peripheral blood (your own or a donor’s)
- Umbilical cord blood
The medical term for any of those three types is “hematopoietic cell transplant.” But people use the term bone marrow transplant to describe any type.
Why would someone need a bone marrow transplant?
Bone marrow transplants treat cancers and other diseases of the blood and bone marrow by replacing unhealthy stem cells with healthy ones. BMT most commonly treats people with leukemia or lymphoma.
BMT can be lifesaving for people whose bone marrow has been destroyed by chemotherapy or radiation treatment. It also treats diseases that cause a person’s bone marrow to stop functioning.
What’s the difference between an autologous and allogeneic transplant?
Autologous means from your own body, and allogeneic means from an outside donor. The transplant procedure will be the same, but the source of the stem cells is different:
- Autologous stem cell transplant: We use stem cells that are harvested from your body. After high-intensity chemotherapy or radiation treatment has put the cancer into remission, we return these stem cells to build a new immune system.
- Allogeneic stem cell transplant: This type of bone marrow transplant uses stem cells from a related or unrelated bone marrow donor.
How does the bone marrow transplant procedure work?
To prepare for a bone marrow transplant, you will undergo conditioning. For most people, conditioning includes several doses of chemotherapy, full-body radiation or both. The treatments weaken or destroy cancer cells and unhealthy bone marrow and give healthy new cells a fresh start.
During the transplant itself, we transfer stem cells into your bloodstream through a catheter (thin, flexible tube) inserted into a large vein in your arm. Afterward, you are at higher risk of infection, so you need to be especially careful while your body builds a new immune system. Find out more about preparing for a bone marrow transplant or recovery from a bone marrow transplant.
Is the bone marrow transplant procedure for children the same as for adults?
Yes. Bone marrow transplant is essentially the same procedure, regardless of the patient’s age. We do make some changes for our younger patients, such as sedating them for the transplant itself to minimize their anxiety. Visit the Pediatric Hematology Oncology site for information on pediatric blood disorders programs.
How long does it take to recover from bone marrow transplant?
Every person’s situation is unique, but most people can expect to spend at least 30 days in the hospital while your body rebuilds your immune system. When your doctors determine your immune system is strong enough, you will be released from the hospital to continue recovery at home. It can take several more months (or even years) after BMT for your immune function to fully recover.
How do I find a bone marrow donor?
Your transplant team will work with you to find a donor who is the best possible match. The process can include testing members of your family as well as searching the National Bone Marrow Donor Program registry.
Our advanced cell manipulating techniques also allow us to perform successful transplants using donors who are not an exact match. In some cases, a child (although only a half genetic match) can donate to a parent.
What is the process for bone marrow donation?
Becoming a bone marrow donor begins with a simple cheek swab to analyze your DNA. If you are trying to donate to a relative, his or her doctor will check to see if you might be a match. If you are joining the donor registry, your information will be available to anyone in the U.S. searching for a match. If you are a match, you will have further testing in preparation for donation.
Doctors get stem cells for transplant in two ways. One involves a surgical procedure, while the other collects stem cells from your blood. Find out more about becoming a bone marrow donor.
Is CAR T-cell therapy the same as a bone marrow transplant?
No. Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy is a type of immunotherapy. It uses your immune cells (removed, modified and transferred back into your body) to fight cancer. CAR T-cell therapy gets its name because it changes your body’s T cells (part of your immune system) to kill off cancer cells. CAR T-cell therapy is currently used to treat adults with certain advanced lymphomas and children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Find out more about CAR T-cell therapy.