Bone Marrow Transplant: Q&A

~Finding Felicity’s Cause~

More than often we hear news stories about this elusive Bone Marrow Treatment and how it helps those with cancer and anemia. Despite its success, many people remain ignorant about Bone Marrow Transplants (BMT) and its potential life-saving effects.  This lack of knowledge leaves people apathetic and unaware of how to become a Bone Marrow donor. So: what are Bone Marrow Transplants and how do they work?

Are they successful?

The higher the tissue match, the higher the success rate (1). Yes Bone Marrow transplants have risen in success over the years (2). Not without potential grafting complications and extensive conditioning regimens, Bone Marrow Transplants are considered effective.

How does it work?

Bone Marrow donors are matched based on immune system markers called human leukocyte antigens (HLA). Thousands of combinations of HLA tissue types exist and the closer the match, the more likely the transplant will succeed. Once an allogeneic match is found, their bone marrow is harvested. When brothers and sisters test negatively as appropriate donors, patients rely on the  World Wide Marrow Bank to find close matches. The replacement bone marrow cells grow into normal blood cells without the cancer’s deformities.

What is Bone Marrow?

Where your body makes the components of blood. Bone marrow is the soft sponge-like material in the centre of bones. Large flat bones such as the breastbone and pelvis contain the most bone marrow (3). To make blood cells constantly you need a healthy bone marrow.


What Does Bone Marrow in Leukemia look like?

In Acute Myeloid Leukemia, the stem cells are arrested in development without maturing into anything useful, crowding out normal blood and immune cells we need to survive.   

Photo credit: Abramson Cancer Center

How are BMTs done?

First, the defective bone marrow needs to be partially or fully wiped out. A course of radiation or chemo or both is used to wipe out defective marrow, leaving the patients with a mixed batch of marrow cells: their old ones and the new, healthy, cells. Often the hardest and most trying time during BMT, this first step alone has taken lives before the procedure can even be completed. Difficult for the individual and the family, this chemo/radiation takes a heavy toll on the body, and often perturbs people form choosing BMT. More research into creating less devastating effects of the first stage continues.

Second, the healthy bone marrow is injected, delivered into the patient’s bloodstream (4). Described by some as ‘similar to getting a blood transfusion,’ the stem cells travel through the blood into the bone marrow. Most times, no surgery is needed.

How can I donate/become a Bone marrow donor?

Simply register! To become a donor it only takes a small vial of blood or swab of cheek cells to be typed as a bone marrow/stem cell donor.  It’s like saying to cancer and anemia communities alike, “I’m here!” Minor costs may apply for HLA tissue typing. If someone needs your bone marrow, you’ll be contacted and harvested.  Screening is often rigorous, but given the benefits of healthy bone marrow—it’s worth the effort!

Individuals wishing to register can:

  • call 1-888-236-6283 (1-888-2-DONATE)in Canada
  • Register with in the USA
  • create an account and appointment with (create username and password) in Canada
  • Outside of North America visit here.


1.   Anasetti C, Anderson G, Busca A, et al. Unrelated donor or autologous marrow transplantation for treatment of acute leukemia. Blood  83 (10): 3077-84, 1994.

2. Laidman, Jenny. (2013). Success Stories for BMT for Blood Cancers. Retrieved July 10, 2014 from

3. Kenny, Tim. (2012). Stem Cell Transplant. Retrieved July 10, 2014 from

4. A. D. A. M. (2013). Bone Marrow Transplant. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Author: Kara Martina, B. Sc. Biopsychology

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