Decorative image

Stem cell transplant

You might have a stem cell transplant as part of your treatment for non Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). Find out more about this treatment.

What it is

A stem cell transplant allows you to have very high doses of chemotherapy. Sometimes you have this with radiotherapy. It aims to cure your cancer.  High dose treatment with a stem cell transplant can have a better chance of curing some types of NHL, or controlling them for a longer time, than standard chemotherapy.

What stem cells are

Bone marrow is the spongy substance inside your bones. It contains stem cells. Stem cells develop into red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.

Collecting stem cells

Before you have high dose chemotherapy, a specialist nurse takes the stem cells from your blood. This is called a stem cell collection or stem cell harvest. They freeze and store the stem cells.

High dose treatment

You have high doses of chemotherapy drugs and radiotherapy to kill off any remaining NHL cells. But the treatment also damages your bone marrow, including the stem cells. This means you can't make any new blood cells.

Returning the stem cells

After the high dose chemotherapy, the nurse gives you back your stored stem cells through a drip (transfusion). Then you can make the blood cells you need again. This is called an autologous stem cell transplant. 

Why you have it

Your doctor might suggest a stem cell transplant if your NHL:

  • is in remission but is likely to come back
  • is in a second remission
  • has not responded to other treatment

Using stem cells from a donor

It is possible to have stem cells donated by a brother or sister. A transplant using donated stem cells is called an allogeneic stem cell transplant. Your brother or sister would have to have a blood test first to make sure their bone marrow is a match with yours.

Sometimes you could have stem cells from someone who is not related to you, but who has matching bone marrow. This is called a matched unrelated donor transplant. It is sometimes used if your lymphoma comes back after a transplant using your own stem cells. But allogeneic transplants have more side effects and complications, and are not suitable for everyone.

Collecting stem cells

The nurse might collect your stem cells after you have had a course of chemotherapy. This is because some of the stem cells move out of the bone marrow and into the blood at this time.

If you don't have enough stem cells, you might need to have injections of a drug called G-CSF. If stem cells are being collected from a donor, your donor will need to have this drug. It makes stem cells spill out from the bone marrow and into the blood.

You have the G-CSF injections for up to 10 days. You have blood tests to check the level of stem cells in your bloodstream. When there are enough, your stem cells are collected.

What happens

The nurse often needs to collect your cells for 2 or sometimes 3 days in a row to get enough. Collecting the stem cells takes 3 or 4 hours each time.

You lie down on a couch. The nurse puts a drip into each of your arms and attaches the drip to a machine. Your blood passes out of one drip, through the machine and back into your body through the other drip. The machine filters the stem cells out of your blood.

The stem cells are frozen until you are ready to have them back. You have them back after you finish your high dose chemotherapy treatment.

Clinical trials

Taking part in a clinical trial helps researchers improve treatment for non Hodgkin lymphoma.

For more information about having a stem cell transplant, you can call the Cancer Research nurses on 0808 800 4040. The lines are open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
Last reviewed: 
15 Sep 2014
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma: diagnosis and management of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma 
    (Draft scope for consultation 8 November–5 December 2013)
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence

  • Guidelines for selection and HLA matching of related, adult unrelated donors, and umbilical cord units for haematopoietic progenitor cell transplantation
    British Society of Blood and Marrow Transplantation, 2012

  • Hematopoietic SCT in Europe: data and trends in 2011
    JR Passweg and others
    Bone Marrow Transplant, 2013. Volume 48, Issue 9

  • Using NHS Cord Blood Bank
    NHS blood and transplant. Accessed August 2015

  • UK Stem Cell Strategic Forum Report
    NHS Blood and Transplant, 2010

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.