Feb 1, 2018, 9:20:00 AM CST Mar 1, 2023, 11:28:48 AM CST

What to know about bone marrow donation

How you can help children with cancer and blood disorders

Marrow donor meets the patient she saved Marrow donor meets the patient she saved
Kiara meets the bone marrow donor who saved her life

Every three minutes, someone is diagnosed with a blood cancer like leukemia or lymphoma. For many of these patients, finding a marrow donor who is a match is their chance for a cure. However, only about 2% of the U.S. population is currently registered to be a donor.

In February, Children’s Health℠ partners with Be the Match®, a program that connects patients with blood cancers and disorders to people who are willing to donate bone marrow or stem cells. Throughout the month, we encourage anyone who is healthy and able to consider becoming part of Be the Match’s bone marrow donation registry.

Before you join the registry, you may have questions about what’s involved or how bone marrow donation works.

What is bone marrow donation?

In children with certain life-threatening diseases such as leukemia, bone marrow does not work correctly. Bone marrow makes new blood cells that everyone needs to live. Children who do not have the right amount of blood cells or have abnormal blood cells can have weakened immunity, anemia and even organ failure.

For a bone marrow transplant (also called a stem cell transplant), physicians take healthy bone marrow cells from a donor. Adults may donate through two different ways: a PBSC (peripheral blood stem cell) donation which involves taking medication followed by a non-surgical procedure called apheresis, or by giving bone marrow taken from the pelvic bone.

The donor cells are placed into the blood of a patient with cancer or a blood disorder. The healthy new cells multiply, replacing the diseased cells.

A bone marrow transplant can cure many diseases, saving a child’s life. Even in cases where a bone marrow transplant does not provide a cure, it can greatly improve a child’s health and quality of life.

What are the odds of a bone marrow match?

Bone marrow matches require a patient and a donor to have more than just the same blood types. They must also have matching human leukocyte antigens (HLA). HLA are proteins in blood cells that help your immune system work. There are thousands of different HLA markers, and a donor should be as closely matched to the patient as possible.

HLA markers are inherited, but up to 70% of patients do not have a good bone marrow match within their family. People of some ethnic backgrounds may have more complex tissue types than others. This complexity means a person’s best chance of finding a donor may be with someone of their same ethnic background.

By finding more donors from a wide range of ethnicities, including Asian, Hispanic, African American and especially multiracial, we can raise the chances of a patient finding a bone marrow match.

How does the donation process work?

If you are identified as an HLA match for a patient, you will be contacted. Once you agree to the donation, you will need to go through a few more tests to ensure you are a good match and your bone marrow is healthy. You will also participate in an information session and consent to the donation. This process can take a few months to complete.

The bone marrow donation process does not cost anything other than time to donors. Medical and travel costs for this generous act are reimbursed by the Be the Match organization.

You may donate in one of two ways depending on what the recipient’s doctor believes is best. First, you may donate peripheral blood stem cells. For this process, you take a medicine that causes your body to create more blood-forming cells that the recipient needs. After taking the medicine for five days, you donate blood during a process called apheresis.

Apheresis can take up to eight hours. During this non-surgical procedure, blood is drawn out of one arm and goes through a machine that pulls out the peripheral blood stem cells. The remaining blood then goes back into your body through your other arm. While this process is long and can cause some discomfort, you should feel fully recovered after one to seven days.

Another way you may donate bone marrow is during a surgical procedure. During this procedure, you are under anesthesia. A physician draws liquid bone marrow out of the back of your pelvic bone using a needle. Donors generally do not need to stay in the hospital after this procedure.

This type of bone marrow donation may cause pain in the back or hips area. However, most donors are fully recovered within 20 days.

Can I sign up to be a bone marrow donor?

Anyone between the age 18 and 40 can join the bone marrow registry at no cost and will remain on the registry until the age of 61 years old. 

You can register to become a bone marrow donor through Be the Match online or at a community event. You will need to take a small sample of cells from the inside of your cheek using a swab to be put into the registry.

Only about one in 220 people in the donor registry ever match with a patient. You may never match with someone who needs a bone marrow donation – or you may be the only match a child needs for a healthy life.

Kiara was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia when she was just 3 months old. At 17, she received a life-saving stem cell transplant. Read her story.

Learn more

Children’s Health is the only academic medical center in North Texas that offers stem cell transplantation to children with a variety of malignant and non-malignant disorders. Learn about our programs and services.

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