Q&A

What is bone marrow?

Bone marrow is a soft tissue found in the centre of certain bones in your body. It is this bone marrow which creates stem cells. Stem cells are the 'building blocks', which can grow into any of the other normal blood cells such as red cells, which carry oxygen, white cells, which fight infection, or platelets which stop bleeding.

Why do we need bone marrow/stem cell donors?

There are a number of diseases that prevent a patient's bone marrow from working properly. These include leukaemia and aplastic anaemia as well as other diseases of the immune system. Although chemotherapy will successfully treat some of these patients, for many the only possibility of a cure is to have a stem cell transplant from a healthy donor. In about 30% of cases, a matched donor can be found from within the patient's family, such as a brother or sister.

The other 70% of patients have to rely on a matched volunteer donor, identified through The British Bone Marrow Registry (BBMR). We need to continue to recruit more donors, particularly from ethnic communities. This is important as finding a suitable match, whenever a bone marrow/stem cell transplant is needed, is often difficult due to the lack of appropriate volunteers on the Registry.

What is the British Bone Marrow Registry?

The British Bone Marrow Registry is a division of NHS Blood and Transplant, working in co-operation with the other UK bone marrow/blood donor registries, Anthony Nolan, a charity dedicated to saving the lives of patients needing a stem cell transplant and the NHS Cord Blood Bank. Stem cell donations from cord blood can be made at specialist hospitals within the NHS. For more information see www.nhsbt.nhs.uk/cordblood/.

The BBMR holds details of stem cell donors and cord blood donations from England, Scotland, North Wales and Northern Ireland. It is responsible for recruiting, testing and registering blood donors who volunteer to become stem cell donors. It is also part of an international network, performing searches around the world to find suitable stem cell donors.

How can I join the register?

You must be aged between 18 and 49 years old (registered before your 50th birthday) and be a blood donor. You can join when you next give blood, or at the same time as your first donation. We will check that there is no medical reason preventing you from being both a blood donor and a stem cell donor. At the time of your blood donation we will take an extra blood sample, so that we can identify your tissue type for the registry from your DNA - the genetic material our bodies are made up from. Please inform the staff at the blood donation session that you wish to join the BBMR before your blood donation is taken.

What happens next?

Patients and potential donors are matched by comparing the white cells in the blood to reveal tissue types. We work in collaboration with Anthony Nolan, a charity dedicated to saving the lives of patients needing a stem cell transplant. If you register with the BBMR you may in future be asked for permission to be contacted by Anthony Nolan if you are ever identified as a possible donor for a patient needing a stem cell transplant. If you agree Anthony Nolan will contact you to talk you through the next steps, and ask you for a further blood sample for more extensive tissue typing. If you have any questions about this you can ask a member of registry staff. This is a serious commitment and you should consider the full implications for both you and the patient when you first complete the consent form and provide a blood sample for testing. If, however, you do not wish to proceed, you may withdraw at any stage.

What happens if I am a match for a patient?

If you are identified as the best possible match with a patient, we will ask your permission to pass your details on to Anthony Nolan, a charity dedicated to saving the lives of patients needing a stem cell transplant. If you agree Anthony Nolan will then invite you to come into one of their centres for an explanation of the procedures from one of their clinical staff. You will also have a thorough medical examination by a doctor and you will be asked to give your consent for a number of blood tests, to ensure there is no medical reason why you shouldn't donate.

How do I donate?

There are two possible ways of donating stem cells that you may be asked to consider.

The first, and most frequently used, is to donate stem cells from circulating blood. For the four days preceding the donation a nurse will inject you with a drug which vastly increases the number of stem cells in your circulating blood. On the fifth day you will have a blood test to check that you have enough circulating stem cells. You will then be connected to a cell-separator machine, without the need for a general anaesthetic. The machine collects the stem cells from your blood via a vein in one arm, returning the blood to your body through a vein in your other arm. If you are already a platelet donor you will be familiar with this type of machine. Occasionally you may be asked back on the sixth day for a further donation, if the dose of cells obtained is not sufficient.

The second method is donation of bone marrow itself, which involves the removal of stem cells from your hip bones. This is done using a needle and syringe under a general anaesthetic in a hospital. Although this is not a surgical operation, there will be marks on the skin made by the needle. As there may be some discomfort where the needle has been inserted, you will need to stay in hospital for up to 48 hours and have a period of recovery at home of up to five days.

Where will I make the donation?

Stem cell donations are given in hospitals or at a clinic and you can bring someone with you for support.

After your donation

For the first twelve months following your donation you will be contacted regularly to ensure you do not experience any adverse reactions. If you need to take time off work for the procedure you will be entitled to re-imbursement of expenses. These details will be covered in your medical interview when the procedures are explained.

What are the risks?

Stem cell donation is very safe. However, no medical procedure is entirely without risk. Both forms of stem cell collection mentioned on this website may involve some temporary discomfort in your bones and any small risks involved will be fully explained before you donate.

What information will I receive about the patient?

The identity and location of both the donor and the patient must remain confidential. This is to comply with 'EU Tissue and Cells Directive (EUTCD)'. All you will know is that you are performing a very valuable and life saving procedure for a person who is in need.

Stem Cell Registries

Bone Marrow Donor Worldwide links bone marrow donor registries internationally using only tissue-typing to establish rapid identification of potential donors. You can be assured that your personal details are only available to the staff of the BBMR and are not available to international agencies.

How can I get more information?

If you have any further questions or general enquiries, please contact the National Blood Service Donor Helpline on 0300 123 23 23.


For further enquiries or questions

Call 0300 123 23 23

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