Finding a Donor: Bone Marrow Transplants

Leukemia is a complex disease and is a random killer. The disease can strike anyone at any time, making many people at risk. One of the most prominent treatments for leukemia is a bone marrow transplant. What does this mean? Here's what you need to know. 


 Bone marrow transplants are not as uncommon as one might think. Reports show that 1 in 200 Americans will receive a stem cell transplant in their lifetime. 1 in 400 will require a donor to save their lives from a relative, stranger or baby's umbilical cord. The problem is that many patients who could benefit from a transplant don't have an equal opportunity to receive one because they cannot find a matching donor. 

For many patients the hope of a cure only comes through a bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cell transplant. 

Cheek Swabbing and Donating Bone Marrow

A patient's best chances of finding a genetic match lies with those of similar ethnic backgrounds. The worldwide registry didn't always represent ethnic groups from all over the world. The Gift of Life Foundation (a national public bone marrow registry) was the first to utilize cheek swabbing to test donors on a large scale at donor drives and have now trademarked a product called Speed Swabbing designed specifically to quicken the process. They alone have facilitated more than 2800 life-saving transplants and many other donor registries have followed in their path. 

Donors between the ages of 18-44 provide the greatest chance for transplant success and are called as a match for a patient over 90% of the time. These age guidelines are not meant to discriminate but to  protect the safety of the donor, while providing optimal outcome for the patient. 


One of the main problems surrounding bone marrow transplants today is there simply aren't enough members across all racial and ethnic backgrounds. The more diverse a donor bank, the higher the chance the patient will find a match.

Members with these backgrounds are especially needed:

  • Black or African American
  • American Indian or Alaska Native
  • Asian, including South Asian
  • Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
  • Hispanic or Latino
  • Multiple Race

A bone marrow or cord blood transplant is a process to replace unhealthy bone marrow with healthy bone marrow.

There are two methods of donation: peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC) and bone marrow. The patient's doctor chooses the donation method that is best for the patient.

  • PBSC donation is a nonsurgical procedure and the most common way to donate. For 5 days leading up to donation, you will be given injections of a drug called filgrastim to increase the number of cells in your bloodstream that are used for transplant. Some of your blood is then removed through a needle in one arm and passed through a machine that separates out the blood-forming cells. The remaining blood is returned to you through the other arm. 
  • Bone marrow donation is a surgical, usually outpatient procedure. You will receive anesthesia and feel no pain during the donation. Doctors use a needle to withdraw liquid marrow from the back of your pelvic bone. 

Disease such as the following are what replacing unhealthy bone marrow with healthy bone marrow can help:

  • life-threatening blood cancers like leukemia
  • diseases which result in bone marrow failure like aplastic anemia
  • other immune system or genetic diseases