Bone marrow contains stem cells. In healthy people, stem cells in bone marrow help create:
- red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body
- white blood cells, which help fight off infection
- platelets, which create clots to prevent excessive bleeding
If a medical condition — such as one that damages the blood or immune system — prevents the body from creating healthy blood cells, a person may need a bone marrow transplant.
A person with any of the following conditions may be a candidate for a bone marrow transplant:
- blood cancers, such as lymphoma or leukemia
- immune or genetic diseases, such as sickle cell disease or thalassemia
- bone marrow diseases, such as aplastic anemia
- bone marrow damage due to chemotherapy or radiation therapy for cancer
There are three types of bone marrow transplant, based on where the healthy bone marrow cells come from.
In many cases, the donor is a close family member, such as a sibling or parent. The medical name for this is an allogenic transplant.
Transplants are more likely to be effective if the donated stem cells have a similar genetic makeup to the person’s own stem cells.
If a close family member is not available, the doctor will search a registry of donors to find the closest match. While an exact match is best, advances in transplant procedures are making it possible to use donors who are not an exact match.
In a procedure called an autologous transplant, the doctor will take healthy blood stem cells from the person being treated and replace these cells later, after removing any damaged cells in the sample.
In an umbilical cord transplant, also called a cord transplant, doctors use immature stem cells from the umbilical cord following a baby’s birth. Unlike cells from an adult donor, the cells from an umbilical cord do not need to be as close a genetic match.
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