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Who can donate stem cells or bone marrow?

Find out who can be a stem cell or bone marrow donor, and how to register.

Why donors are needed

A stem cell or bone marrow transplant is an important treatment for some people with types of blood cancer such as leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma.

A transplant allows you to have high doses of chemotherapy and other treatments. The stem cells are collected from the bloodstream or the bone marrow. People have a transplant either:

  • using their own stem cells (autologous transplant)
  • or using the stem cells from a matching donor (allogeneic transplant)

Matching donor cells

To be a donor you need to have stem cells that match the person you are donating to. To find this out, you have a blood test to look at HLA typing or tissue typing. 

Staff in the laboratory look at the surface of your blood cells. They compare them to the surface of the blood cells of the person needing a transplant. 

Everyone has their own set of proteins on the surface of their blood cells. The laboratory staff look for proteins called HLA markers and histocompatibility antigens. They check for 10 HLA markers. The result of this test shows how good the HLA match is between you and the person who needs the cells.

Donating stem cells or bone marrow to a relative

A brother or sister is most likely to be a match. There is a 1 in 4 chance of your cells matching. This is called a matched related donor (MRD) transplant. Anyone else in the family is unlikely to match. This can be very frustrating for relatives who are keen to help.

If you are a part match

Sometimes if your cells are a half (50%) match, you might still be able to donate stem cells or bone marrow to a relative. This is called a haploidentical transplant.

If you're not a match

You can't donate stem cells or bone marrow to your relative if you're not a match. 

It's sometimes possible to get a match from someone outside of the family. This is called a matched unrelated donor. To find a matched unrelated donor, it's usually necessary to search large numbers of people whose tissue type has been tested. So doctors search national and international registers to try to find a match for your relative.

Being a donor for someone else

Even if you can't donate to your relative, you might be able to become a donor for someone else. You can do this by contacting one of the UK registers.

There are different donor registers in the UK. These work with each other and with international registers to match donors with people who need stem cells. This helps doctors find donors for their patients as quickly as possible from anywhere in the world.

How to register

Each registry has specific health criteria and list medical conditions that might prevent you from donating. Check their website for this information. Once registered, the organisation will contact you if you are a match for someone who needs stem cells or bone marrow.

British Bone Marrow Registry (BBMR) 

To register with the BBMR, you must be a blood donor. BBMR would like to register those groups they are particularly short of on their register. This includes men between the ages of 17 and 30. And women aged between 17 and 40 who are from Black, Asian, and minority ethnicities and mixed ethnicity backgrounds.

You have a blood test for tissue typing. Your details are kept on file until you are 60.

Anthony Nolan 

You must be aged between 16 and 30 to register with Anthony Nolan. You have a cheek swab to test for tissue typing. Your details are kept on the register until you are 60. 

Welsh Bone Marrow Donor Registry 

You must be aged between 17 and 30 and your details are kept on the register until you are 60. You have a blood test for tissue typing.

DKMS 

To register you must be aged between 17 and 55. You have a cheek swab for tissue typing. Your details stay on the register until your 61st birthday. 

Last reviewed: 
12 Sep 2018
  • 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

     

  • BSHI Guideline: HLA matching and donor selection for haematopoietic progenitor cell transplantation
    A Little and others 
    International Journal of Immunogenetics, 2016. Volume43, pages 263-286

  • Use of haploidentical stem cell transplantation continues to increase: the 2015 European Society for Blood and Marrow Transplant activity survey report
    J Passweg and others (2017) 
    Bone Marrow Transplantation (2017) 52, 811–817

  • Recommendations for a standard UK approach to incorporating umbilical cord blood into clinical transplantation practice: an update on cord blood unit selection, donor selection algorithms and conditioning protocols
    R Hough and others 
    British Journal of Haematology, 2016. Volume 172, pages 360-370

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