From James H. Essell, MD, Transplant Specialist and Co-Director of Research at OHC

July 10, 2013

Essell James H MD - PHOTOA bone marrow transplant is a medical procedure that replaces damaged or diseased bone marrow — the soft, fatty tissue inside your bones — with healthy bone marrow stem cells. These new stem cells can come from your own body or from a matching donor.

Why is it important to have healthy bone marrow with healthy stem cells? Because they produce (1) red blood cells, which deliver oxygen throughout your body; (2) white blood cells, which help ward off infections; and (3) platelets, which allow your blood to clot and your wounds to heal.

Unfortunately, your marrow can be weakened by hematological malignancies. These are cancers of the blood, marrow, or lymphatic system (part of your circulatory system). Some of these diseases include leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy (often used together) are common treatments for many people with these diseases. A stem cell or bone marrow transplant may be required for relapsed or aggressive disease. The stem cells can be used to rescue the blood-forming cells from the effects of the chemotherapy and/or radiation, or to replace a diseased bone marrow with a healthy one.

So where do healthy stem cells come from?

They are taken from bone marrow donors who are related to the patient, sometimes a close relative like a sister or brother. More rarely, even a parent or child. These are called allogeneic bone marrow transplants. However, 70 percent of patient/donor matches are not related. In these cases, an unrelated donor is often found through a national bone marrow registry.

Perhaps surprisingly, stem cells can also be taken from the patient’s own bone marrow or blood. This is called an autologous bone marrow transplant. In this case, the patient’s marrow is harvested, frozen, treated, and then placed back into the patient.

Be a Marrow DonorBy the way, patients are often confused by the terms ‘bone marrow transplant’ and ‘stem cell transplant.’ Are they different? Actually, they’re nearly the same thing; the only difference being where in the body the stem cells came from. For instance, if stems cells have been harvested from bone marrow, the procedure is called a bone marrow transplant. When they’ve been harvested from the bloodstream, it’s often called a stem cell transplant.

Remember, a bone marrow transplant is just one treatment strategy that your physician can recommend. In addition to transplantation, new treatments are being tested in clinical trials all the time, including in OHC’s own clinical trials research program.

If you have any questions or concerns about bone marrow stem cell transplants, feel free to contact OHC or your primary care physician.

Dr. Essell is board certified in internal medicine, medical oncology, and hematology. He practices blood and marrow transplantation, a specialty of his, at the OHC Kenwood office located at The Jewish Hospital.

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