Who can donate bone marrow or stem cells

Find out who can be a bone marrow or stem cell donor and how you can donate bone marrow or stem cells.

Registers of stem cells and bone marrow

There are 2 main registers of bone marrow and stem cell donors in the UK: 

  • the British Bone Marrow Registry (BBMR) which is run by the National Blood Transfusion Service (NBTS)
  • Anthony Nolan - a charity

Both organisations have a register of people willing to donate their stem cells or bone marrow to someone who needs it.

They are also part of Bone Marrow Donors Worldwide, an international organisation with more than 19 million registered potential donors. It helps doctors find donors for their patients quickly and from anywhere in the world.

How to register to be a donor

The two organisations have different ways of joining the register.

British Bone Marrow Registry (BBMR)

To register with the BBMR you give a blood sample. 

You must be aged between 17 and 40 and be a blood donor. The BBMR checks that there are no medical reasons that could stop you donating.

Your details are kept on file until you are 60. The organisation contacts you if you are a match for someone who needs bone marrow or stem cells.

Anthony Nolan Register

You have a cheek swab to test for tissue typing. The organisation has specific health criteria for donors.

You must be aged between 16 and 30. Your details are kept on the register until you are 60. The organisation contacts you to ask you to donate if someone needs your bone marrow or stem cells.

Donating stem cells or bone marrow to a relative

You are more likely to be a match to a brother or sister. 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.

It is sometimes possible to get a match for your relative 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 will search national and international registers to try to find a match for your relative. The doctor can also request for you to be tested. But if you are not a brother or sister, you are less likely to be a match. 

Matching donor cells

The staff in the laboratory look at the surface of the donor blood cells. They compare them to the surface of the blood cells of the person needing a transplant.

This test is called tissue typing or HLA typing. HLA stands for human leucocyte antigen.

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.

Being a donor for someone else

Even if you can't donate to your relative, you may want to become a donor for someone else. 

Last reviewed: 
23 May 2019
  • 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


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