No doubt by now you have heard of the incredible advances in the field of stem cell therapy to treat a variety of conditions ranging from erectile dysfunction to autoimmune disorders. You also know that the stem cell transplant is a treatment for some types of cancer, for example, leukemia, multiple myeloma, or some types of lymphoma. Doctors also treat some blood diseases with stem cell transplants.
But what is a bone marrow transplant? Is it similar to a stem cell transplant? Are they even interchangeable? Bone marrow is a soft, spongy tissue within the bones that produces hematopoietic stem cells. These stem cells normally develop into healthy red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. In the past, patients who needed a stem cell transplant received a “bone marrow transplant” because the stem cells were collected from the bone marrow. Today, stem cells usually are collected from the blood or fat tissue, instead of the bone marrow. For this reason, they are now more commonly called stem cell transplants and many people use the terms “bone marrow” and “stem cell” interchangeably, since bone marrow is the source of hematopoietic stem cells, and healthy stems cells are what patients need.
The difference between the two is in the donation procedures.
A bone marrow or stem cell transplant replaces stem cells that are cancerous, faulty, or destroyed by chemotherapy or radiation. In a bone marrow transplant, stem cells are collected from a donor’s bone marrow. While under general anesthesia, the donor’s bone marrow is harvested directly from the hip bones through a large needle.
In a peripheral blood stem cell transplant, or PBST, stem cells are harvested from a donor’s blood through a process called apheresis. Donors receive a medication for five days that increases stem cell production. This process, which harvests stem cells from the bloodstream, is similar to a blood donation.
Another type of stem cell transplant uses hematopoietic stem cells from umbilical cord blood, which parents agree to donate to a public cord blood bank for use by a matching patient in need. In all cases, the final product that the patient receives are stem cells.
‘Allo’ vs. ‘Auto’
An allogeneic (“allo” means “other”) transplant requires stem cells from a donor. A donor must have a similar HLA tissue type as the patient. There is a one in four chance that a patient’s biological sibling will be a good match. A match might also be found through a national registry such as Be The Match.
In an autologous (“auto” means “self”) transplant, a patient’s own stem cells are collected from the blood and frozen, similar to the way a donor’s would be. Sometimes a patient may receive anti-cancer drugs first to reduce the possibility of cancer cells being picked up along with the stem cells.
In both types of transplants, the patient typically receives high doses of chemotherapy or radiation to destroy the cancer. Finally, the stem cells — either the donor’s or the patient’s own — are thawed and given to the patient, where over time they will grow and create healthy blood cells.
Choosing the Treatment that is Right for You
How do you know if a transplant is right for you? Seeking answers from the Internet, medical professionals, friends, and your insurance company can often lead to information overload and a feeling of confusion and exhaustion. Experts advise that the first thing you should do is seek out a doctor who specializes in transplants. Once that relationship is established, your doctor will recommend which treatment is right for you based on a number factors, but mostly, on the disease that must be treated. Other factors include the health of your bone marrow and your age and general health. For example, if you have cancer or other disease in your bone marrow, the doctors will not recommend using your own stem cells.
If you are have questions or need help navigating the right path to treatment, call National Stem Cell Centers in New York office at 646-448-0427, or 516-403-1457 for our Long Island office to discuss a treatment option that is right for you.