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What is myeloma?

Men and women discussing myeloma

This page is about myeloma. There is information about

 

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What is myeloma?

Myeloma is a type of cancer that develops from cells in the bone marrow called plasma cells. Bone marrow is the spongy tissue found inside the inner part of some of our large bones. Bone marrow produces our different types of blood cells. Myeloma can develop wherever there are plasma cells. As it can be in several places in the body, it is often called multiple myeloma.

Plasma cells are part of the immune system. They make proteins called antibodies, which are also known as immunoglobulins. Antibodies attack and help to kill bacteria and viruses. Different antibodies are made to respond to different infections.

There are 5 main types of antibody. Myeloma cells produce an abnormal form of one of these types of antibody. It is found in your blood and urine. The abnormal antibody does not work properly and is not able to fight infections.

In myeloma, too many plasma cells are made. These take up much more room in the bone marrow than they would normally. This means that there is not enough space for making normal white cells, red cells and platelets.

 

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What myeloma is

Myeloma is a type of cancer that develops from cells in the bone marrow called plasma cells. Bone marrow is the spongy tissue found inside the inner part of some of our large bones. The bone marrow produces different types of blood cells.

Myeloma can develop wherever there are plasma cells. So it can be anywhere there is bone marrow, including the pelvis, spine and ribcage. As it can occur in several places in the body, it is often called multiple myeloma.

Diagram of bone marrow

Plasma cells are part of the immune system. They make proteins called antibodies. These are large protein molecules also called immunoglobulins. The plasma cells make antibodies when the body responds to infections. They make different antibodies for different infections. Antibodies attack and help to kill bacteria and viruses. There are 5 main types of antibody (immunoglobulin) – A, G, M, D and E. In each patient, the myeloma cells produce an abnormal form of one of these types of antibody. You may hear your doctor call the antibodies proteins, paraproteins, or a monoclonal spike. You can find out more about antibodies in the about your body section.

Diagram of an antibody

In most people with myeloma the abnormal antibody can be found in the blood. In some people the abnormal antibody is found in the urine. The abnormal antibody does not work properly and is not able to fight infections.

 

Blood cells and myeloma

In order to understand why myeloma affects you the way it does, it helps to understand how blood cells are normally produced and what they do.

Normally, the bone marrow makes blood cells in a controlled way, when your body needs them. All blood cells start as the same type of cell, called a stem cell. As they develop (mature), they turn into one of three types of blood cell

  • White blood cells (leucocytes)
  • Red blood cells (erythrocytes)
  • Platelets (thrombocytes)

Plasma cells develop from a type of white blood cell called B lymphocytes. In myeloma, too many plasma cells are made and they are all of the same type. They crowd the bone marrow. This means that there is not enough space for making normal white cells, red cells and platelets.

Diagram showing the cell line plasma cells come from

The white cells are important for fighting infection. If you don't have enough of these, you will pick up more infections than normal and will have trouble fighting them off.

Red blood cells carry oxygen round the body. If you haven't got enough of these, you have anaemia. This can make you tired and breathless.

Platelets are vital for normal blood clotting. If you don't have enough platelets, you will have bleeding problems such as nosebleeds, very heavy periods, or a fine rash of red spots caused by bleeding into the skin.

There is information about the white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets and what they do on the page about blood and circulation.

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Updated: 21 November 2013