For many blood cancers, immune system disorders, and some inherited conditions, chemotherapy and radiation alone are not enough to cure the patient. When no other treatment works, a physician may recommend a peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) or bone marrow transplant to save the patient’s life. With an entirely new marrow and immune system, transplant recipients have their best chance to be cured of their condition, and for some diseases, these transplants are the only known cure.
Decades of research led to the discovery that blood cancers are caused by mutations that start in the bone marrow, where blood cells are formed by hematopoietic stem cells. Replacing diseased marrow with healthy marrow can cure these blood cancers, provided both the donor and recipient have the same tissue type. This process also works for other blood and immune system related diseases.
There are more than 70 life-threatening blood cancers, inherited immune disorders, and other conditions that can be cured by a PBSC transplant. The list is growing over time as the doctors, researchers, and other members of the scientific community understand more about how diseases are caused and cured.
A complete list of the diseases that can be cured by a PBSC transplant can be found by clicking here.
The cells collected and transplanted in both blood stem cell and bone marrow donation are the same: Hematopoietic Stem Cells. The main difference is how these cells are gathered. A stem cell transplant uses stem cells collected from the bloodstream via the apheresis process whereas bone marrow is a collected under anesthesia using aspiration needles to draw out bone marrow from the iliac crest of the hip bone.
Decades ago, the National Institutes of Health developed the apheresis process to collect specific types of cells from the circulating blood. In the early 1970s, apheresis was first used to collect hematopoietic stem cells from the peripheral blood, and transplant of these cells was shown to provide an equivalent benefit to recipients as a bone marrow transplant.
To prepare for the donation process, donors receive a shot of Filgrastim (trade name Neupogen®) once per day for the four days before donating, and a final shot just before donating. Filgrastim stimulates the bone marrow to produce more of the blood forming stem cells and release them into the circulating blood, where they can be collected during donation. It has been safely used for more than 30 years for this purpose.
Some donors can experience headaches and bone aches while taking Filgrastim, but these effects dissipate shortly after donating.
When the donor arrives on their day of collection, they meet Gift of Life's collection center staff and are given an individual donor suite. The suite contains a donor chair designed to be comfortable for several hours, a television and other amenities, and a chair for the donor's companion.
The nurse then prepares the donor for apheresis by placing a needle in each arm. One arm is connected to the apheresis machine, and blood drawn into the machine, processed througha centrifuge to separate the blood components, and the blood stem cells are collected. All the remaining blood is returned to the donor via their other arm. Returning blood is pre-warmed back to body temperature, to maintain the donor's comfort.
Donors can read, watch movies, make phone calls, and chat with their companion during donation, and food, snacks, and drinks are provided to both.
Apheresis typically takes from four to six hours, but some donors are done in less time, while others may take longer. On occasion a donor will need to spread their collection out over two days. Rarely, a donor is asked to use a central line for collection; these collections are done in a hospital facility.
After collection, a donor may experience no symptoms, or mild symptoms of achiness and/or lightheadedness, but every person reacts differently. Most donors return to work the day after donation, and can resume athletic activities, like exercise, within a few days. After collection, the body's stem cells regenerate and return to normal levels on their own within a few weeks.
After the collection of peripheral blood stem cells is complete, the collected cells are packed in a cooled box and transported via courier to the transplant center. The donated cells are infused through an IV directly into the patient’s blood. The PBSC naturally find their way into the recipient’s bones and begin making new, healthy bone marrow, blood cells, and immune cells. The period while the cells are finding their way into the bones and starting new growth is called engraftment, and takes several weeks. The recipient will now share both the donor's blood type and any allergies they may have.
Anyone 18 to 35 years old and in general good health can join the registry at no charge by clicking here to order a swab kit sent to your home. If you are 36 or older it is less likely you will be called to donate, so we ask you to pay for the lab processing of your swab kit. This lets us focus financial resources on the donors most likely to be called to donate.
If you aren’t able to join the registry for some reason, we are actively seeking new volunteers to help run drives and organize events – click here to apply to our Volunteer Network.
You are welcome to sponsor a swab kit for someone else by making a financial contribution. Just click here to become a monthly or one-time financial supporter.
If you have any questions about donating stem cells, or anything else about the registry, please contact us and we’ll be happy to help.