Becoming a bone marrow donor could be one of the most rewarding things you ever do, and to your match, you will be a life-saver. But how does it all work? Here’s our guide to everything you need to know about donating bone marrow.
What is bone marrow?
Bone marrow is the name given to the spongy tissue found in the centre of some bones. Bone marrow produces stem cells which form the important part, and the reason behind the need for bone marrow donation. Stem cells are vital because they have the potential to turn into various different blood cells, the three main ones are:
- Red blood cells (they carry oxygen around the body)
- White blood cells (they help to fight infection)
- Platelets (they help to stop bleeding by clotting)
Who needs it?
There are certain diseases that stop bone marrow from working as it should. These include:
- Leukaemia (cancer of white blood cells)
- Bone Marrow Failure
- Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system)
- Genetic blood and immune system disorders like Sickle Cell Anaemia and Thalassaemia
While chemotherapy can be successful in treating some patients suffering from these diseases, for most the only option is a bone marrow transplant from a healthy donor.
Are you eligible to donate?
There are a number of conditions you must meet to be a bone marrow donor. You must be:
- Between the ages of 16 and 49
- In general good health
- Over 7st 12lb (50kg) in weight
- Have a lower BMI than 40
You cannot donate if you suffer from:
- HIV and AIDS
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Hepatitis B or C
- Heart Disease
- Kidney Disease
- Type 1 diabetes
If you are pregnant, you will be temporarily unable to donate until your baby is 12 months old.
How do you register?
For a successful transplant, tissues need to match and for that reason, the best donations usually come from close family members of the patient. However since only about 30% of patients can find successful matches from within their family, there are two bone marrow registry services that work closely together.
- The British Bone Marrow Registry (part of the NHS)
- The Anthony Nolan Trust register (run by a charity)
Most people are able to find a suitable donor on the registers, although a small number with rare tissue types may find it a lot more difficult, if not impossible. There is a particularly desperate need for donors from ethnic backgrounds.
What happens at the donation?
If you are on the register and stand out as a potential match for someone, you will be asked to provide a small blood sample to determine your tissue type. If this is found to be a match for a patient, you may be contacted and asked to donate. You will receive a full medical examination and counselling about the procedure beforehand.
There are two ways to donate:
- Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) donation
- A bone marrow donation
The most widely used method is the PBSC donation: four consecutive days before the donation you will receive injections to increase the levels of stem cells in your bloodstream. On the fifth day (donation day) you will be attached to a machine that separates the stem cells from your blood which should take around four to five hours.
The second, less widely opted for, is the bone marrow donation: you will be put under general anaesthetic and a syringe will be inserted into your hip bone to remove the bone marrow. Afterwards there may be some discomfort and you will need to stay in the hospital for 48 hours to recover.
Both procedures are considered extremely safe and only 1 in 100 people experience a complication when donating, such as an infection or allergic reaction to the anaesthetic.
And that’s all there is to it!
There should be no side effects after your donation, aside from the possibility of a few aches or flu-like symptoms, and you will have done a truly wonderful thing for a person in desperate need. The NHS have compiled some patient stories that show just how important this life-saving donation is, as well as some compelling donor stories.
Find out more on NHS Blood and Transplant.