Stem cell transplant

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Stem cell transplant

Stem cell transplant — Overview covers definition, risks, results of procedure to replenish stem cells.


A stem cell transplant is the infusion of healthy stem cells into your body. A stem cell transplant may be necessary if your bone marrow stops working and doesn't produce enough healthy stem cells. A stem cell transplant can help your body make enough healthy white blood cells, red blood cells or platelets, and reduce your risk of life-threatening infections, anemia and bleeding.

Although the procedure to replenish your body's supply of healthy blood-forming cells is generally called a stem cell transplant, it's also known as a bone marrow transplant or an umbilical cord blood transplant, depending on the source of the stem cells. Stem cell transplants can use cells from your own body (autologous stem cell transplant) or they can utilize stem cells from donors (allogenic stem cell transplant).


A stem cell transplant poses many risks of complications, some potentially fatal. Although some people experience few problems with a transplant, others must endure frequent tests and repeated hospitalizations.

Complications that can arise with a stem cell transplant include:

  • Graft-versus-host disease
  • Stem cell (graft) failure
  • Organ damage
  • Blood vessel damage
  • Cataracts
  • Secondary cancers
  • Death

Your doctor can explain your risk of complications from stem cell transplant. Together you can weigh the risks and benefits to decide whether stem cell transplant is right for you.

Graft-versus-host disease: A potential risk when stem cells come from donors
If you're undergoing a transplant that will use stem cells from a donor (allogenic stem cell transplant), you may be at risk of graft-versus-host disease. This condition occurs when a donor's transplanted stem cells attack your body. Graft-versus-host disease can be mild or severe. It can occur soon after your transplant or months to years later.

Graft-versus-host disease can cause skin rashes, abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. Over time it can cause other complications and chronic illnesses. Your doctor will monitor you closely for signs and symptoms of graft-versus-host disease.

What you can expect

Image of a bag of stem cells ready for transplant
A bag of stem cells ready for transplant.

During your stem cell transplant
Stem cell transplants are typically performed in specialized medical centers. These centers generally have transplant units, with a team of specialists caring for you. This team often includes doctors, transplant nurses and coordinators, mental health professionals, occupational therapists, and dietitians.

Stem cell transplantation involves infusing, or injecting, donor stem cells through your central line. This usually takes one to five hours. The transplanted stem cells make their way to your bone marrow cavities, where they begin creating new bone marrow and stem cells. It can take several weeks, though, for your blood counts to begin recovering.

If you receive bone marrow or blood stem cells that have been thawed, you may notice an odor in your room for a day or two after the transplant. This is caused by the substance used to preserve the cells.

Just before the transplant, you may receive medications to reduce the side effects the preservative can cause. These side effects include:

  • Nausea
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Hives

Not everyone experiences side effects from the preservative, and for some people those side effects are minimal.

After your stem cell transplant
After your stem cell transplant, you may stay in the hospital until your blood counts recover or you may return home but remain under close medical care. Some people who have inpatient transplants are able to leave the hospital within three to five weeks, but others may face much longer hospitalizations. Some transplant facilities require transplant recipients to remain nearby for 100 days to allow close monitoring.

In the days and weeks after your stem cell transplant, you may have many of the same kinds of tests and procedures to monitor your condition that you had before the transplant. You may also need supplemental nutrition to compensate for nausea and diarrhea.

To combat various complications, you may need to take numerous medications. You may also need periodic transfusions of red blood cells and platelets until your bone marrow begins producing enough of those cells on its own.

Last Updated: 04/11/2008
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