Curious about the what, why and how of donating stem cells? We’re here to help you make sense of all the medical mumbo jumbo.
How do you donate stem cells?
The first step is to sign up with your local stem cell donor registry. Head to our “Become a donor” page to find out if you’re eligible.
All signed up? Now just wait for the call (you can do other stuff in the meantime). It could be in 10 months or 10 years, but one day you might be matched with someone, somewhere in the world, who needs a transplant.
If you do get asked to donate, you can choose between two methods. That’s right — your body, your choice. Here are your options:
1 - Peripheral blood stem cell donation
This is the most common way to donate. A few days before the donation, you’ll receive injections that kick your bone marrow into high gear so it produces extra stem cells.
On the day of the donation, you’ll be hooked up to a machine that draws blood from one arm, filters out those extra stem cells, and then returns your blood to the other arm. The process takes about four to six hours, but you’re welcome to bring a laptop, book or anything else to pass the time.
2 - Bone marrow donation
This surgical procedure involves drawing liquid marrow (which is packed with stem cells) directly from your pelvic bone. Don’t worry, you’ll be under anesthesia so you won’t feel a thing! The procedure lasts 45 to 90 minutes, and most donors only report feeling sore and fatigued for a few days.
Does it hurt?
We’ll be 100% honest with you. It’s not NOT going to hurt. Some things might be unpleasant or uncomfortable. But actual punch-in-the-gut pain? Nah.
If you opt for a peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation, there ARE going to be a few needles involved and an achy feeling in your bones. But what’s a few pricks in your healthy arms compared to fighting for your life against cancer?
If you choose the surgical donation option, you won’t feel a thing during the procedure thanks to the anesthesia. Afterward, you’ll likely experience some tenderness in your pelvic bone for a few days. For most people, it feels like a bruise, or like when you start to exercise again after spending a few months glued to the couch. But hey, that’s the price you pay to become someone’s hero.
Why does ethnicity matter?
When it comes to finding a compatible stem cell donor match, doctors look at a part of your DNA called human leukocyte antigen (HLA) markers. Since these HLA markers are inherited, you're much more likely to share the same combination of markers with people of the same ethnicity.
The problem is that the majority of registered stem cell donors worldwide are white, even though most of the global population is not. This means that a person’s chance of finding a life-saving stem cell donor is heavily dependent on whether or not they’re white.
And at Swab The World, we simply cannot accept this.
What diseases can be treated by a stem cell transplant?
Stem cells have the power to heal a wide range of diseases. Thanks to science, new discoveries are made each year, meaning more and more conditions can be treated with a stem cell transplant.
Blood cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma, are the most well-known. There are also several bone marrow diseases, such as severe aplastic anemia, sickle cell disease or inherited immune system and metabolic disorders, to name a few. Blood stem cells are bona fide miracle workers for patients living with these diseases. And the good news is the list of treatable diseases just keeps getting longer!
Can I only donate to people in my country?
When you sign up with your local registry, you automatically become part of the international donor database — or as we like to call it, the International Pool of Superheroes.
There are at least 54 countries that have one or more national stem cell and bone marrow registries, and they all have access to the international database. This means you could be matched with someone almost anywhere in the world.
You can access the complete list of donor countries here.
Can I change my mind and say no?
You’re certainly allowed to decline to donate, even if you’ve already said yes. But there’s something important to keep in mind. If you do get asked to donate, you might be the only person with the power to save that patient’s life.
So before you sign up all gung-ho because your cousin is sick, take the time to think things through. After all, you’ll stay on the donor registry until your 60th birthday — so you need to be in this for the long haul.
Saving someone’s life is a big responsibility, but don’t worry, you’ll be guided every step of the way. And trust us, it’s worth it.
But if you’ve signed up to be a donor and now realize you’re not up for it, please contact your local registry to withdraw your name. This is the best way to avoid giving a patient false hope.
If I share my DNA, how do you ensure my privacy?
Super easy: we don’t even come close to your genetic information. We don’t see it, we don’t touch it, we don’t record it. We’re a communication channel between you and the world’s donor registries. Your DNA doesn’t transit through Swab The World at any time.
What are the odds of actually donating?
This depends on several factors, including the size of your country’s registry, your age and your sex.
For instance, in the U.K. there are roughly 550,000 registered donors. Everyone on this list has about a 1-in-800 chance of donating in the next five years. If you narrow it down to just men aged 16 to 30, however, their chances go up to 1 in 200.
The odds aren’t super high, but they’re certainly higher than winning the lottery!
Can I donate just to a specific person?
Simply put, no. When you register to become a stem cell donor, you’re signing up to save anyone in need. If you happen to be a compatible match with a sick family member or friend, wonderful! But you might also be a perfect match for someone halfway around the world — and they’re counting on you.
Think of it this way. If a stranger had the power to save your life or the life of someone you love, you’d want them to step up and do it, right? As a stem cell donor, YOU get to be that person for someone else.
Why is there an age limit to becoming a donor?
Statistics show that younger people are more likely to be chosen as donors in life-saving stem cell transplants. This is because younger donors have fewer health complications that could prevent them from donating, and their young, healthy stem cells often provide a better transplant outcome for the patient.
Every day counts for someone in desperate need of a life-saving stem cell transplant. Finding out that a donor can’t proceed because of a health issue can waste precious time. What’s more, it costs a substantial amount of money to add each donor to the registry. As charities with limited resources, the national organizations in charge of these registries need to focus on recruiting people who are most likely to be chosen as donors and who are truly committed.
Of course, people older than the age limit in their country can make good donors too. That’s why registered donors are kept on the list until they reach their 60th birthday (in most countries at least).
Why do men make better stem cell donors?
It’s not a matter of quality, but rather quantity. Since men are larger than women on average, they have a larger supply of stem cells to give. Their stem cells also tend to offer better patient outcomes post-transplant, for a variety of reasons related to how immune system reactions work.
That being said, young and healthy adults of all genders can make excellent stem cell donors, so don’t miss your chance to save a life!
Can LGBTQ+ folks donate stem cells?
Unlike when it comes to donating blood, men who have sex with men can sign up to become stem cell donors in pretty much any country that has a donor registry.
As for transgender people, registries around the world are looking into it, but the initial response seems to be to take it case by case. So, if you meet the criteria to become a donor in your country, you should definitely contact your local registry!
What’s the difference between bone marrow and stem cells?
Bone marrow is a soft, spongy substance located inside most of your bones. Bone marrow contains blood stem cells, which are the cells that become either red blood cells, white blood cells or platelets. They’re essentially the building blocks of your blood.
A bone marrow donation usually refers to the surgical procedure in which a doctor takes stem cells directly from the marrow in your pelvic bone. The other way to donate is called the peripheral blood stem cell donation method, or PBSC. This option involves filtering stem cells out of your blood. The setup is kind of like a long blood donation.
Will I have to get a needle in my spine?
Definitely not. If you opt for the bone marrow donation method, a needle will be used to take stem cells directly from your pelvic bone. The doctor won’t touch your spinal cord, promise!
If you choose the peripheral blood stem cell donation option, the only needles will be in your arms. Nowhere near your spine!
What’s the deal with umbilical cords?
You might have heard that the blood inside a baby’s umbilical cord can save lives. Well, it’s true! This blood is super rich in blood stem cells, and it’s the next best thing to a living donor. A lot of patients who can’t find a compatible match rely on these baby cells for treatment — including Swab The World cofounder Mai!
Are you an expecting mom? First of all, congrats! Now go find out if your local hospital has a cord blood donation program. Don’t let those precious, life-saving cells go to waste!
You just might be able to give life twice — but this time, without the pain of childbirth.