Bone marrow transplant is a treatment for leukemia and other serious medical conditions. It can cure a patient who has an otherwise incurable disease. Although developed for leukemia, bone marrow transplant is used in lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and testicular cancer patients. It is also used to treat a rare condition called aplastic anemia. Bone marrow transplant is being tested in sickle cell anemia, myeloproliferative disease, and myelodysplastic syndrome. It was once used in breast cancer, but was abandoned because it did not work.
Appropriate patients are referred to a bone marrow transplant hospital, because smaller hospitals cannot perform this specialized treatment. A bone marrow transplant specialist- a blood and cancer doctor with specialized training- will evaluate the patient and decide if a bone marrow transplant is appropriate. Since it is a risky procedure, younger patients without other medical problems are the best candidates.
A bone marrow donor is needed. Sometimes a patient donates his or her own bone marrow for the transplant. This is called an autologous transplant. In this approach, the patient’s own bone marrow is collected and frozen. The patient then is treatment aggressively with chemotherapy or radiation to kill the cancer cells. Since the treatment inadvertently kills patient bone marrow, the frozen bone marrow is given to rescue the patient’s bone marrow.
A brother of sister can also be the marrow donor, or a donor can be found from a bone marrow transplant bank. When someone else’s marrow is used, it is called an allogeneic transplant. This type of transplant is riskier than with a patients own bone marrow, but can result in cure. After collecting bone marrow from the donor, the patient is treated with chemotherapy or radiation to kill cancer cells, then donor marrow is given to rescue the patient’s bone marrow. The donated bone marrow can start an immune reaction that kills remaining leukemia cells, but this reaction can also cause serious, sometimes life-threatening side effects including severe diarrhea and rash.
Bone marrow transplant is an aggressive treatment that sometimes cures otherwise incurable conditions. Patients can have a good quality of life after a bone marrow transplant. It is reserved for younger, healthier patients because of the serious risks involved, including life-threatening infections.