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What is a Stem Cell Transplant?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 December 2019
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A stem cell transplant is an infusion of healthy stem cells performed in order to fight off disease or infection as well as replenish damaged or destroyed stem cells in the patient. Traditionally given to patients with certain types of leukemia, stem cell transfers can impart the ability to fight off or destroy an attacking disease by giving the patient healthy cells from a donor. Although stem cell transfers can be greatly beneficial, they carry considerable risks and are not always successful.

A stem cell is a type of cell that replenishes by cellular division and can diversify into many different cells needed in the body. They are vital in repairing damage to the body, even having the ability to grow new organ tissue in case of injury or disease. Patients suffering from leukemia or certain cancers often undergo chemotherapy, a process which destroys unhealthy cells but can also kill healthy ones. By giving a patient undergoing chemotherapy a stem cell transplant, new healthy cells are introduced into the body and can begin propagating to replace the diseased and destroyed original cells.

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There are three common sources of stem cells that can be used for a stem cell transplant. Stem cells can be taken from the bone marrow of a donor, using a large needle to reach the pockets of stem cells deep within the bone. The use of peripheral blood stem cells is gaining popularity. These cells are harvested by taking blood from a donor, siphoning out the stem cell material, and returning the remaining blood back to the donor.

The third and most controversial source of stem cell is from the umbilical cords of babies. Once born, the umbilical cord is snipped off the baby, and traditionally has been discarded. Scientists have discovered that the cord contains a rich deposit of stem cells that may be especially good for transplanting, as they are less likely to be attacked by the recipient’s immune system.

A stem cell transplant is typically done by infusing the donor stem cells into the recipient through a central line. After the procedure is completed, it may take weeks or even months of careful monitoring to get a clear indication of whether the transplant has succeeded. Typically patients are medicated both before and after the treatment, in order to prepare the body and give the transplant the best chance of success.

Risks involved in a stem cell transplant are severe in some cases. Due to the patient’s weakened immune system, infections are a constant possibility and can cause severe complications. In some instances, the donor cells will attack the recipient, in a condition known as graft-versus-host disease. Additionally, the body can reject the cells, rendering the treatment unsuccessful.

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