Editor’s Note: This morning, Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts announced that she will undergo a bone marrow transplant at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Learn about the treatment and recovery process from Memorial Sloan-Kettering experts.
Over the course of three decades, Memorial Sloan-Kettering physicians have performed more than 4,000 bone marrow transplants – nearly 400 annually in recent years. This procedure, also known as a stem cell transplant, is used to replenish bone marrow and hematopoietic stem cells that have been destroyed due to a variety of reasons, such as certain types of cancer, cancer treatments, blood diseases, or immune disorders. Hematopoietic, or blood-forming, stem cells are produced in the bone marrow.
Our investigators have also been at the forefront of research in stem cell transplantation since 1973, when our doctors performed the world's first successful transplant between a patient and an unrelated donor. Many of the transplant approaches and supportive care regimens widely used today were pioneered at Memorial Sloan-Kettering.
In a recent interview, experts on our Adult Bone Marrow Transplantation Service talked about the procedure, the recovery process, and how to become a bone marrow or stem cell donor.
What does a stem cell transplant involve?
There are two main types of transplants. In an autologous transplant, a patient’s own stem cells are collected and then transplanted back. In an allogeneic transplant, the stem cells are obtained from another person or from donated umbilical cord blood and then given to the patient.
Before either type of transplant, the patient receives high doses of chemotherapy or a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy to kill any cancerous cells and hematopoietic stem cells in the bone marrow. Healthy blood stem cells are then transplanted into the bloodstream through an intravenous catheter, in a process similar to a blood transfusion.
The stem cells migrate to the bone marrow, where after several weeks they usually begin to develop into new infection-fighting white blood cells, oxygen-rich red blood cells, and blood-clot-forming platelets.
How do doctors decide that a person should receive a transplant?
We carefully select patients for this procedure because transplantation can be extremely challenging for a patient and his or her family. This is both because of the toxicity of the high-dose regimens before the transplant and because the patient’s immune system must be suppressed for an extended period of time after the procedure to prevent a rejection of the transplanted cells.
Despite the risks, outcomes have dramatically improved over the past decades, and stem cell transplants can often cure a person’s disease. In fact, a recent study conducted by the National Marrow Donor Program found that Memorial Sloan-Kettering significantly exceeded its predicted one-year survival rate for patients undergoing an allogeneic transplant.
What is the recovery process like for a patient?
Most patients remain in the hospital for several weeks to receive medical support. To protect against infection, everyone who enters the patient’s room is required to wear gloves, masks, and sometimes disposable gowns, and to wash their hands with antiseptic soap. Patients can’t have any fresh fruit, flowers, or plants in their rooms, as these can carry disease-causing molds and bacteria.
The first year after the transplant is critically important because it’s the period when complications – such as infection or rejection – are most likely to happen. Patients are typically able to get back to their regular activities after a year, with a lower risk of developing an infection.
How do you identify donors for patients who need an allogeneic transplant?
Finding an appropriate donor is critical to the success of an allogeneic transplant. Because the immune system can identify and destroy any cells perceived as foreign, a donor’s tissue type should match the patient’s as closely as possible. The process of tissue typing is based on analyzing proteins called human leukocyte antigens (HLA), which are found on the surface of white blood cells and tissues.
We work closely with our patients to find a bone marrow match. Often, the ideal donor is a sibling who has inherited the same HLA. The majority of patients do not have a brother or sister who is a match, so we can look for other family members who may be a partial match. But because family size is getting smaller in North America, it is becoming more challenging to find appropriate family member donors.
We often look to volunteer donor registries, such as the National Marrow Donor Program, and in some cases we consider using umbilical cord blood stored in public banks, such as through National Cord Blood Program. It can also be difficult to find stem cells from people of mixed ethnic or minority backgrounds through these registries, so we encourage more people to consider becoming a donor.
How can I register to become a bone marrow or stem cell donor?
You can join the Be The Match Registry or DKMS Americas. Everyone who is medically able should consider becoming part of a marrow registry. Learn more about who can donate, donor requirements, and medical guidelines from the National Marrow Donor Program.