The bone marrow registry-all you need to know


FIRSTLY, What is bone marrow?

This is the tissue that could be regarded as the factory for the production of red blood cells to carry oxygen, white cells to fight infection and platelets to prevent bleeding.


Every healthy person between 18 and 45 can be a donor. “Tissue-types” are inherited characteristics, used in matching donors and patients. The likelihood, therefore, of finding a suitable volunteer will be considerably greater within the same ethnic and background, making the need for a local registry that much greater.

Why are unrelated donors needed?

Family members, particularly brothers and sisters are generally most suitable. However, due to the average family size, only about 30% of patients have a compatible sibling.

How are donors and patients matched?

In the same way as blood groups exist, so white cells can be categorised into groups known as “tissue-types”. Very many possible tissue types exist, so that finding the correct match depends upon having a very large register of volunteers. Although there are over 10 million donors registered worldwide some searches are still not successful.

How are stem cells donated?

This is the most likely method of collecting your stem cells. Blood stem cells are found in the bone marrow and also in the circulating blood stream (peripheral blood) but in smaller numbers.  You are given a daily injection to stimulate your body to produce more of these cells and you then donate the cells in pretty much the same way as blood donation.
This method is seldom used in South Africa, however if it is in the patient’s best interest, the patient’s doctor might request a bone marrow stem cell collection instead. The marrow collection process in this case is a surgical procedure that occurs in a hospital operating theatre while you receive general anaesthesia. Some of your marrow is removed from the back of your pelvic bone, using sterile needles and syringes. The amount collected depends on the needs of the patient and the size of the donor.

What does the donor initially do?

Volunteers, if deemed to be suitable, need to have a small blood sample taken and sent to our laboratories for tissue-typing. The results are placed on an international computer registry.

Is a transplant a definite cure?

Unfortunately the field of bone marrow transplantation is complex and a number of patients still die of complications despite the best medical care. Increasing numbers of successful transplants are being carried out using matched unrelated donors. However, donors can only be assured that they offer the hope of a future to patients whose disease would almost certainly otherwise prove fatal.

Can I change my mind?

You are completely free to change your mind at any moment, up to the moment you are asked to donate. Most donors are delighted to hear that they have been chosen to donate – after all, that’s why they joined the Registry.