A stem cell transplant is the process whereby specific cells which are found in the bone marrow are taken out, filtered and then given back either to the same person or another person receiving donated bone marrow. A stem cell transplant infuses healthy stem cells into a sick patient’s body. Other terms that are more commonly known for a stem cell transplant are bone marrow transplant and umbilical cord blood transplant.
There are two types of stem cell transplants: the autologous type uses cells from your own body or the allogeneic type, which uses stem cells from a donor. In both cases and regardless of the medical condition that causes you to need a stem cell transplant, the process. Stem cell transplants are typically done to treat certain types of cancer or hematological diseases such as sickle cell anemia. These transplants normally occur after receiving a course of chemotherapy whether or not radiation therapy is used.
A process called apheresis is used to collect circulating stem cells from the donor. The donor receives a series of injections over a few day time period of a medication that causes the stem cells to move out of the bone marrow and into the blood. Similar to regular blood donation, the donor is connected to a machine by a needle in his or her vein in either arm. The blood flows from the vein is filtered through the machine and returned to the donor through a needle in the other arm. Another method used, although not as likely, is bone marrow harvesting directly from either the hipbone or the breastbone. This is done in an operating room while the donor is under anesthesia.
The recipient has an entirely different process to undergo. Many tests and procedures will be done to asses a person’s health and the status of his or her medical condition to ensure they are physically as well as mentally and emotionally prepared for the transplant.
Some of the procedures include the recipient receiving high doses of chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy to eliminate any bone marrow they have left. This is done to make room for the new marrow or stem cells that will be transplanted.
In addition to the chemotherapy an IV catheter is surgically implanted (usually into the chest). This is called a central line and will stay in place for the duration of the treatments. It is through the central line that the transplanted stem cells will be infused into the patient’s body. During this conditioning process the patient’s immune system is extremely weak which leaves the patient vulnerable to anemia, pneumonia and other infections.
Once the conditioning process is complete and the patient is able to undergo the transplant, the new stem cells are put into the central line with the hope they will find their way into the bone, start to grow and produce more healthy cells. The goal is for healthy new stem cells to grow and replace the cancerous cells permanently.