How is a blood stem cell donation different to blood donation

2 May 2018

There is a common confusion that blood stem cell donation is the same as blood donation and that blood donors don't need to register as a blood stem cell donor separately. 

What blood stem cell donations are used for

Blood stem cell donations are used to treat blood cancers (e.g. leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma) and disorders (e.g. myelodysplastic syndromes - MDS, and aplastic anaemia). For many, a blood stem cell donation from a matching donor is their last hope for a survival.

Before receiving a stem cell transplant, the patient will have their immune system wiped out so it can be rebuilt by the healthy donor cells. As blood stem cells are responsible for making the blood and immune systems, the donor’s blood group and immune system will be transferred to the recipient.

PBSC collection and blood donation

Although the donation method used in 90% of blood stem cell donations, Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) collection, looks similar to blood donation, blood stem cell donation is different from giving blood and the blood donor registry is separate from the stem cell registry

When you register as a potential blood stem cell donor, you complete a cheek swab which is then analysed at our lab to establish your tissue type. Whether a blood stem cell donor and a blood cancer patient are a good match is determined by their human leukocyte antigen (HLA) type, which is essentially their DNA, not their blood type.

If your tissue type matches that of someone in need of a donation, we will be in contact as soon as possible to confirm your availability, talk you through the whole process, arrange further tests to check your suitability for the patient and set a donation date. That's why it's important that you keep your contacts with us up to date.

If donating via PBSC, you will receive injections of a stimulating factor called G-CSF (granulocyte-colony stimulating factor) for four days in the run up to your donation date. This is simply to stimulate your blood stem cells in the bone marrow to go into your blood stream and be ready for collection.

During PBSC, you donate only stem cells extracted from your blood, rather than whole blood - blood is taken from one of your arms, passed through a machine that separates your blood stem cells and then the blood returned to your other arm.

Bone marrow donation

The other possible donation method, used in 10% of all cases in the UK, is bone marrow donation. This is an inpatient surgical procedure carried out under general anaesthetic. It involves liquid marrow being removed through two small incisions in the at the pelvic bones under general anaesthetic (not the spine!).

The marrow that will be removed will be no more than 5% of your bone marrow, i.e. a maximum of 1,5 litres of liquid marrow containing blood stem cells.

Donation logistics

Unlike blood donations, which are done in a hospital near you, blood stem cell donations take place in specialised hospitals. We cover any travel and accomodation expenses that may be required for your donation, as well as the travel and accomodation expenses of a companion if you'd like to have one.  

Blood donor registry and stem cell registry

If you've registered as a blood donor you might have also registered as a blood stem cell donor at the same time. To check if you have regsitered for both, you’d reach out to the NHS Blood and Transfusion (NHSBT) team to confirm if they took an extra sample from you for the purpose of registering as a potential blood stem cell donor.

This is a service they offer but the advice on their website says you’d need to tell staff that you wished to register for this when giving your blood donation. For more information check out the the process as described on NHSBT website or contact them

If you aren’t registered with NHSBT and would like to register as a potential blood stem cell donor check what it takes to regsiter as a potential a potential lifesaver with us.