Bone Marrow Transplant : Types, Procedures, and Risks
What Is a Bone Marrow Transplant?
A bone marrow transplant is a medical procedure performed to replace bone marrow that has been damaged or destroyed by disease, infection, or chemotherapy. This procedure involves transplanting blood stem cells, which travel to the bone marrow where they produce new blood cells and promote growth of new marrow.
Bone marrow is the spongy, fatty tissue inside your bones. It creates the following parts of the blood:
- red blood cells, which carry oxygen and nutrients throughout the body
- white blood cells, which fight infection
- platelets, which are responsible for the formation of clots
Bone marrow also contains immature blood-forming stem cells known as hematopoietic stem cells, or HSCs. Most cells are already differentiated and can only make copies of themselves. However, these stem cells are unspecialized, meaning they have the potential to multiply through cell division and either remain stem cells or differentiate and mature into many different kinds of blood cells. The HSC found in the bone marrow will make new blood cells throughout your lifespan.
A bone marrow transplant replaces your damaged stem cells with healthy cells. This helps your body make enough white blood cells, platelets, or red blood cells to avoid infections, bleeding disorders, or anemia.
Healthy stem cells can come from a donor, or they can come from your own body. In such cases, stem cells can be harvested, or grown, before you start chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Those healthy cells are then stored and used in transplantation.
Bone marrow transplants are performed when a person’s marrow isn’t healthy enough to function properly. This could be due to chronic infections, disease, or cancer treatments. Some reasons for a bone marrow transplant include:
- aplastic anemia, which is a disorder in which the marrow stops making new blood cells
- cancers that affect the marrow, such as leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma
- damaged bone marrow due to chemotherapy
- congenital neutropenia, which is an inherited disorder that causes recurring infections
- sickle cell anemia, which is an inherited blood disorder that causes misshapen red blood cells
- thalassemia, which is an inherited blood disorder where the body makes an abnormal form of hemoglobin, an integral part of red blood cells
A bone marrow transplant is considered a major medical procedure and increases your risk of experiencing:
- a drop in blood pressure
- a headache
- shortness of breath
- a fever
The above symptoms are typically short-lived, but a bone marrow transplant can cause complications. Your chances of developing these complications depend on several factors, including:
- your age
- your overall health
- the disease you’re being treated for
- the type of transplant you’ve received
Complications can be mild or very serious, and they can include:
- graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), which is a condition in which donor cells attack your body
- graft failure, which occurs when transplanted cells don’t begin producing new cells as planned
- bleeding in the lungs, brain, and other parts of the body
- cataracts, which is characterized by clouding in the lens of the eye
- damage to vital organs
- early menopause
- anemia, which occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough red blood cells
- nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting
- mucositis, which is a condition that causes inflammation and soreness in the mouth, throat, and stomach
Talk to your doctor about any concerns you may have. They can help you weigh the risks and complications against the potential benefits of this procedure.