Stem cell transplants
Stem cell transplants can be used to treat leukaemia. Most people with ALL who have a stem cell transplant will be given stem cells from someone else (a donor). This is called an allogeneic stem cell transplant (or allograft).
Donor stem cell transplant
A donor stem cell transplant can be used to increase the chances of curing leukaemia or keeping the leukaemia in remission for as long as possible.
A donor stem cell transplant replaces your immune system with the immune system of your donor. The immune system defends the body against infections and diseases like cancer.
A donor stem cell transplant is an intensive treatment and is carried out in specialised transplant units with specially trained teams.
If your doctor thinks a stem cell transplant is the right treatment for you and is able to find a suitable donor (see below) then you will have this after you have had some chemotherapy and are in remission.
Finding a donor
HLA marker testing (called tissue typing) looks for certain proteins on the cells. Doctors use this to find a donor who is a ‘match’ for your tissue type. Brothers and sisters (your siblings) are most likely to be a match for you, so if they are willing to be donors they are tested first.
If you don’t have a match among your relatives, it may be possible to find a volunteer unrelated donor (VUD). You may also hear this referred to as a MUD (Matched Unrelated Donor) transplant. Blood transfusion services and some charities have lists (registries) of volunteer donors in the UK.
Some people may be able to have stems cells from umbilical cord blood. The umbilical cord connects a baby to its mother during pregnancy. After the birth, cord blood can be donated and stored so it’s available for people needing transplants.
Cord blood can sometimes be used for people who don’t have a suitable sibling donor or VUD.
Having a transplant
Before a donor stem cell transplant you are given chemotherapy and sometimes radiotherapy to stop your immune system rejecting and destroying the donor cells. This is called conditioning treatment. Following this you will be given the donor stem cells through a drip. It can look and feel similar to having a blood transfusion.
Stem cell transplants have many side effects and possible complications. You may need to stay in hospital for 4–6 weeks or longer, and for most of that time, you’ll usually be in a room of your own. There are likely to be times when you feel very unwell. It can take many months to fully recover.
You’ll need to weigh up the possible benefits and risks of this treatment very carefully. A donor stem cell transplant may give a greater chance of curing the leukaemia, or getting it into remission, than other treatment. This has to be weighed against the risks. Your doctor or specialist nurse will be able to talk to you more about your own situation.