How your cells cure cancer

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Stem cells are the building blocks needed to create a new immune system

Stem cells are the building blocks of the body. The stem cells from our bone marrow make up our immune system including white cells. These cells play an important role in our bodies including fighting off infections and disease.




A new immune system can kill the cancer

A person with blood cancer does not have a normal functioning immune system because it is allowing the cancer to live in their body. The idea of receiving someone else’s stem cells means that a new immune system can be formed which will hopefully detect the cancer and kill it. The stem cells can also be used to cure many other blood disorders and immunodeficiencies. 

What's involved for the patient?

Basically the cancer patient will receive high dose chemotherapy that wipes out their own immune system so they will have zero white cells. The stem cells from a healthy person is then given so they find their way into the bone marrow to re-build a new immune system and fight the cancer.

How are my stem cells searched and found to be used by the patient in need?

By calling the Red Cross on 13 14 95 and asking to join the registry. At the collection centre a sample of your blood will be taken to be tissue typed and added to the Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry, a central database that can be searched worldwide to potentially become a patient’s life-saving match. Your blood sample is given a unique code that can then be matched with the patient's unique code. Only 1 in 1500 Australians are a match in any given year so you won't be getting calls all the time! Find out what happens next if you ever become someone's lifesaving match.

Stem cells or Bone Marrow?

These different terms can cause confusion and are sometimes used interchangeably. In the past the phrase “Bone Marrow Transplant” was commonly used. Nowadays you may hear it being called a “Stem Cell Transplant” (which is the abbreviated version of "Peripheral Blood Stem Cell Transplant", PBSCT).

This is because of improvements in technology and development of drugs that can safely cause the stem cells to come out of the bone marrow and into the peripheral blood circulation/stream that can be collected and used for transplant (see PBSC Donation for more information). Traditionally the only way to have these cells taken was directly through the bone marrow and that's why it was called a "Bone Marrow Transplant".  

So a peripheral blood stem cell transplant (PBSCT or stem cell transplant) is when the stem cells have been collected from the blood stream, whereas a bone marrow transplant (BMT) is when the stem cells have been collected directly from the bone marrow. Stem cells can also be collected from an umbilical cord - all these cells are virtually the same but have been collected in different ways. Most people will describe it as either a bone marrow or stem cell transplant.