Who Needs a Bone Marrow Transplant?

Daniel Marcus';

By Daniel Marcus

Posted on March 4th, 2022 in News, Myths & Tips

Over 22,000 bone marrow transplants are carried out every year in America, the vast majority of which are for people with blood cancers such as leukemia. A bone marrow transplant is a special treatment for patients with hematopoietic cancers or other diseases affecting the stem cells produced by the bone marrow.

It entails taking stem cells normally found in the bone marrow from a healthy person, filtering them, and eventually giving the stem cells back either to the donor or to another person. A bone marrow transplant is meant to place healthy bone marrow cells in the body of a person whose bone marrow has been treated to kill abnormal stem cells.

Since 1968, bone marrow transplants have successfully treated numerous diseases affecting stem cells. Today, by virtue of innovative, cutting-edge medical technology, the procedure is even safer and minimally invasive. The healthy stem cells are injected using a needle into a bone, typically the pelvic bone, after which they begin working as the patient's own bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a crucial part of our bodies, as it releases stem cells and other substances, which, in turn, produce blood cells. Each kind of blood cell made by the bone marrow has a very important job – for example, red blood cells carry oxygen to every tissue in the body.

The Perfect Candidates for a Bone Marrow Transplant

Because the stem cells of the bone marrow are vital for the proper functioning of the body, people whose bone marrow has been damaged by cancer or other serious diseases are often told they need to undergo a transplant. There are two types of bone marrow transplants. The first, autologous bone marrow transplant, involves stem cells collected from the body of the patient, whereas the latter, allogenic bone marrow transplant, entails taking stem cells from a donor who is compatible with the recipient, such as a parent or a person who is unknown to the patient.

However, there is also the possibility of umbilical cord stem cells transplant, in which the stem cells are collected immediately after the child is born. They grow into mature, functioning blood cells faster and more effectively than stem cells taken from the bone marrow of a child or adult. There will be numerous medical specialists involved in determining whether the person requires a bone marrow transplant, such as social workers, oncology, hematology and immunology experts, dietitians, and physical therapists. The following are the cancers and diseases for which a bone marrow transplant might be the perfect solution:

  • leukemia
  • myeloma
  • lymphoma
  • aplastic anemia
  • myelodysplastic syndromes
  • amyloidosis
  • myeloproliferative syndromes
  • Waldenstrom's macroglobulinemia
  • immune deficiency disorders

Before undergoing a bone marrow transplant, your overall health will be carefully and thoroughly assessed by a team of medical specialists. They will also consider your age, the extent of your disease, your tolerance to certain medications and procedures, the availability of a donor, your opinion and preference, and your expectation for the course of the transplant and the disease. Once you are deemed a good candidate for bone marrow transplant and once a compatible donor is found, you will be scheduled for the procedure.

How Is a Bone Marrow Transplant Performed?

The patient will be prepared for the bone marrow transplant depending on their disease and how severe it is. Cancer patients will often have to receive high doses of chemotherapy or radiotherapy before undergoing the procedure to address the malignancy and make room for the new stem cells to grow. This is known as ablative or myeloablative therapy because of its effect on the bone marrow.

After the patient receives chemotherapy or radiotherapy, the bone marrow transplant is given through the central venous catheter into the bloodstream. It is not a surgical procedure per se to place the marrow into the bone – it is rather similar to receiving a blood transfusion. The stem cells will eventually find their way into the bone marrow and start reproducing and growing new, healthy blood cells.

Following the bone marrow transplant, the patient will receive supportive care to prevent and treat infections, the side effects of the treatment, and potential health complications. Supportive care includes regular blood tests, close monitoring of vital signs, frequent fluid input and output measurements, and daily weigh-ins. After the bone marrow transplant, the patient should expect the following, among others:

  • spending a few days in the hospital
  • being prone to infection
  • experiencing excessive bleeding
  • needing blood transfusions
  • taking antibiotics and other medication
  • experience nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea

It is essential to mention that the new stem cells usually make their way to the bone marrow within 15 to 30 days after the transplant. This is why the patient will have to spend so much time in the hospital, as the time before the stem cells are engrafted implies many health risks.

The Benefits of a Bone Marrow Transplant

A bone marrow transplant aims to cure some types of cancer and other debilitating diseases. When the doses of chemotherapy or radiotherapy necessary to keep cancer under control are so high that the treatment will forever damage a person's bone marrow, a transplant might be a good idea. Furthermore, bone marrow transplants can also be necessary if a disease has destroyed the patient's bone marrow. These are the benefits of undergoing a bone marrow transplant, as despite it requiring a lengthy hospital stay, a bone marrow transplant yields many advantages:

  • replaces nonfunctioning bone marrow with healthy bone marrow
  • regenerates the immune system that will battle existing or residual cancer
  • restores the normal function of the bone marrow after high doses of chemotherapy or radiotherapy
  • replaces bone marrow with healthy functioning bone marrow to prevent more damage from a genetic disease

Consequently, a bone marrow transplant is a minimally invasive and usually effective procedure to enhance a person's life quality suffering from cancer or another disease affecting their bone marrow and, thereby, their blood. Nonetheless, only after a complete health evaluation will your doctor and the other medical specialists involved in this decision tell you whether a bone marrow transplant is the best option for you.