What are Bone Marrow Stem Cells?

Katriena Knights

Bone marrow stem cells are special cells within the bone marrow that can form into any type of blood cell when triggered. This allows the bone marrow to supply blood cells to the body as they are needed. The bone marrow acts as a sort of factory or manufacturing station for blood cells, using these undifferentiated stem cells as raw material for white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.

Three pieces of bone with the marrow in the middle.
Three pieces of bone with the marrow in the middle.

Doctors and scientists have known that bone marrow stem cells can grow into any type of blood cell. Research has shown, however, that these cells also can develop into other types of cells such as cardiac cells, skin cells, and even muscle cells. This research indicates that bone marrow stem cells might be able to be used to treat a number of diseases that are not necessarily related to blood.

A diagram of the anatomy of a bone, showing the bone marrow.
A diagram of the anatomy of a bone, showing the bone marrow.

Bone marrow stem cells are used to treat several blood-based diseases. Perhaps the best known of these treatments is the bone marrow transplant, commonly used to treat leukemia and lymphoma. In these forms of cancer, intense radiation therapy or chemotherapy destroys the bone marrow cells, which in this case have begun to malfunction. The malfunctioning bone marrow is then replaced with cells from a bone marrow donor. In some cases, a patient may donate blood cells but the cells must be cancer-free for the treatment to be effective; this process is referred to as autologous bone marrow.

For a bone marrow donation to be effective, the blood type of the donor and other factors typically must be evaluated and matched to that of the patient. The more similar characteristics that exist between patient and donor, the more likely the transplant is to be successful. Because of this, close relatives of the patient are more likely to be able to provide a compatible donation. Donations also can come from non-related people, as well.

It is possible to be tested for these important factors ahead of time and be placed on a list of possible donors. In cases where bone marrow stem cells are needed for a transplant, individuals on the list will be evaluated to look for a match with the patient. Like blood banks, bone marrow donations lists are a vital tool to help those afflicted with certain types of devastating diseases. As scientific research continues, more uses for bone marrow stem cells are likely to surface, some of which could revolutionize modern medicine.

Stem cells can turn into red blood cells.
Stem cells can turn into red blood cells.

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