How to become a bone marrow donor?

Originally Published: March 1, 1996 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: November 13, 2009
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Dear Alice,

What is involved in being tested to be a bone marrow transplant donor?

Dear Reader,

The process depends somewhat on whether you are being tested because a family member needs marrow or if you are being tested to join the registry of donors. Either way, deciding to become a donor is a 100 percent voluntary process.

In the past, marrow donors had to have marrow drawn from their hip bones in what was a somewhat invasive surgical procedure. Nowadays, blood stem cells are collected directly from the blood in a process called peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation. Potential risks of this method are minimal for eligible donors.

To be medically eligible for the national bone registry Be The Match, a donor must be between the ages 18 to 60 and undergo a physical. There are a few medical conditions that would prevent someone from being eligible to donate. Bleeding problems, HIV, most cancers, certain spinal or hip injuries, and many autoimmune disorders would preclude someone from becoming a donor. However, it is interesting to note that many STIs, well-controlled epilepsy, most allergies, and recent cold/flu infection would not be an issue. Neither would tattoos or piercings. A full list of health guidelines can be found here.

If you have a relative in need of marrow, the primary test conducted to determine a match is called Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) typing. Since HLA proteins are inherited, full siblings are typically the ideal marrow match. If HLA typing works out, the next step involves some additional testing to ensure you don't have any of the health issues that would pose a risk to the transplant recipient or to you as the donor.

If all systems are go, the next step is a series of daily injections given to the donor for five days before the donation. These injections move the blood-forming cells out of the marrow and into the bloodstream.

The medication in these injections can cause the following side effects in some donors:

  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Bone and/or muscle aches
  • Fatigue

Over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen can help or a doctor can prescribe medication for you. If side effects appear, they are usually gone within a couple days of finishing the injections.

At the donation center, blood is removed through a needle in one arm and passed through a machine that separates out the blood-forming cells. The remaining blood is returned to the donor through the other arm. The donation process takes four to six hours and is done on an outpatient basis. Donors usually undergo two to four sessions, depending on how many cells are needed.

Thanks for helping make the donor options for marrow less narrow!