Unrelated donor for a blood and marrow transplant

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Learn how unrelated donors are found, before your child's blood and marrow transplant.

Key points

  • Once the donor is found and confirmed, the procedure to harvest the bone marrow is arranged at a hospital near the donor.
  • In some cases, cord blood from an umbilical cord or placenta may be used for a BMT.
  • It typically takes between three and six months to find an unrelated donor.

If your child’s transplant team cannot find a donor within your family, then they will start to look for an unrelated donor. In Canada, your child’s transplant physician will make a request for a donor through the unrelated donor registry called One Match Stem Cell and Marrow Network. This is a registry of people who have volunteered to donate bone marrow. To respect everyone’s privacy, you and the donor will not know anything about each other.

There is also an international registry containing bone marrow donors from all around the world, called Bone Marrow Donors Worldwide.

When the donor is found

If potential donors are identified, they are contacted and another blood sample is taken to confirm that they are a good match for your child.

A representative from the One Match Stem Cell and Marrow Network will ask the potential donor to come in for a consultation. This will give the donor an opportunity to ask questions and learn about the procedure. If they still agree to donate their marrow, doctors will do a medical exam to make sure the donor is healthy enough to donate.

Once the donor is found and confirmed, the procedure to harvest the bone marrow is arranged at a hospital near the donor. A member of your child’s health care team will travel to that hospital to pick up the marrow.

Some parents send an anonymous thank you note to the donor. Your blood and marrow transplant (BMT) nurse or immunology nurse can send the note to the Registry for you. The Registry will confirm that the donor receives your note.

Cord blood

The blood obtained from the placenta or umbilical cord of newborn babies also contains many stem cells.

Around the world, there are many banks that store frozen cord blood stem cells. The doctor will also search these cord blood banks to see if there is a frozen cord sample that might be right for your child.

The ability of your child’s marrow to take up donor cells is also affected by the amount of donor stem cells available for the transplant. Provided a cord blood has many stem cells, we can be less concerned about how well they match your child. If a cord blood is selected for the transplant, it will be transported still frozen to the hospital before your child is admitted for the transplant.

How long does the search for an unrelated donor take?

Usually, it takes about three to six months to locate an unrelated donor. This can be a very stressful time for you and your family. Depending on your child’s illness, doctors may discuss proceeding with the transplant with a less than perfectly matched donor. Your child’s doctor will discuss this with you in more detail.

Last updated: March 5th 2010