How Does Bone Marrow Donation Work?

By Ashley Ess in Helping Hands

A bone marrow transplant is a life-saving procedure for a person fighting a disease such as leukemia, lymphoma, or another immune disorder. However, in order to receive this procedure, the patient needs to find a donor match. A donor match is someone who shares a similar tissue type with the patient, according to the Be the Match donor program. So, how does bone marrow donation work exactly? Let's explore the process.

What Is Bone Marrow?

The National Cancer Institute describes bone marrow as the soft, spongelike tissue in the center of most bones. There are two types of marrow: yellow, made mostly of fat, and red, made of blood stem cells. These blood stem cells are collected during donation and used in the treatment of conditions such as blood cancers.

Why Is Bone Marrow Donation Important?

The Health Resources and Services Administration states that a bone marrow transplant procedure replaces unhealthy blood-forming cells with healthy cells, extracted from a donor match. The donation of healthy stem cells saves lives, plain and simple. It's a powerful thing to be the person that could save a life, no matter if it's of a relative or stranger.

Volunteers helping during a bone marrow donation drive

How Do You Get Placed on a Registry?

Are you wondering how to get on the bone marrow donation list? In order to become eligible as a marrow donor, you will need to register with an organization, such as Be the Match. The registration process typically consists of sharing health information, signing a consent form, completing a physical exam, and providing a cheek swab and blood samples. Other organizations, such as DKMS, require you to fill out an online form and send in a swab kit.

After being placed on the potential donor list, you will be tested for markers called human leukocyte antigens (HLA), or cell proteins. These markers are what determine if you are a match for a particular patient. Further testing may be done, but the HLA match is an important starting point.

Despite being eligible for the registry, not all donors will be a match and donate to a patient. Your chances of becoming a donor are about 1 in 430. Finding out if you're a match for a patient can be immediate or take several years.

scientist observing blood samples under microscope

How Does Bone Marrow Donation Work?

As Be the Match explains, there are two methods to donate marrow. Which method is right for you will be determined by a doctor. The peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation is a nonsurgical procedure that collects healthy blood-forming cells directly from your blood. The well-known process of extracting blood-forming cells directly from marrow through a surgical procedure is more invasive but is necessary for some donors.

The PBSC method differs from standard blood donation in that you are not simply donating blood; you will need to take a medication for several days ahead of donating. This medication increases your blood-forming cells. Once these cells are extracted, your blood is then replaced. The entire process is spread over four to six weeks and may take up to thirty hours total.

Bone marrow donation is a very thorough process that takes safety very seriously, evident through the extensive guidelines, protocols, and requirements involved. With all medical procedures, there is always risk of side effects, and recovery experiences and times will vary.

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Why It's Good

The decision to become a bone marrow donor can save a life. This meaningful contribution gives patients hope for their future.