About Stem Cells

A doctor or nurse interacting with an elderly patient.

Blood stem cells are immature cells produced by bone marrow and that develop into specific types of cells in the bloodstream, namely:

Red blood cells carry oxygen to tissues in the body.

White blood cells fight infections. 

Platelets help control bleeding by clotting blood.

How Stem Cells are Made

These cells are constantly dividing and changing into the different types of blood cells to replace old or damaged blood cells. Without stem cells, the body cannot make the blood cells needed for the immune system to function. When patients need a stem cell transplant, their bone marrow has failed due to an illness. 

Young adult brothers in their kitchen smiling and laughing.

The decision to undergo a blood stem cell transplantation is a serious undertaking. A great deal of planning goes into developing an individualized treatment plan just for the patient. The process starts with a consultation and continues through the path of finding a donor, receiving the transplant, recovery and follow-up. In total, the transplant process can take many months to a few years. 

Biological siblings have a 1 in 4 chance of being a genetically compatible stem cell donors for the patient. If a brother or sister doesn’t provide a match, the Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry is searched for an unrelated donor that matches the patient. If there is no ideal match within Canada, the search is extended to international registries. 

Prior to receiving the donor’s cells, the patient undergoes chemo or radiation therapy prior to the transplant to kill cancer cells and suppress the immune system to avoid rejection of the new stem cells. In the months following the transplant, patient red and white blood cells and platelets are low. They are at high risk of developing infection and must be closely monitored while staying in isolation. Gradually, blood counts increase and the immune system naturally recovers. Full recovery and a return to normal activities typically takes more that 1 year.