What is a Bone Marrow Match?

Jessica Hobby

A bone marrow match occurs when a bone marrow donor has marrow that matches with someone in need of a bone marrow transplant. People who are diagnosed with serious immune system, blood or genetic diseases may choose to undergo a bone marrow transplant as one of their treatment options. A bone marrow transplant replaces unhealthy cells that form blood with healthy ones from a donor. Once a person has decided to proceed with a transplant, he or she must find a donor with a successful bone marrow match.

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

When a donor and patient’s bone marrow compatibility is tested, doctors are looking for matching HLA tissue types. HLA stands for human leukocyte antigen, which is a hereditary protein found on most of the cells in the body. These proteins act as markers and signify which cells belong in the body and which do not. Because these markers are hereditary, each person has two sets which include one from each parent.

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

To evaluate a person’s bone marrow, doctors look at six HLA antigens, but many transplant centers look at eight or ten antigens. For a successful bone marrow match, at least five antigens must match. The process used to ensure the best match possible for a donor and recipient is called confirmatory typing. Bone marrow transplants that use the marrow of another person are called an allogenic bone marrow transplant and are the most popular.

Siblings are the best chance for a bone marrow match.
Siblings are the best chance for a bone marrow match.

Because HLA tissues are genetic, most doctors first look for donors within the family, with the best chance of matching a sibling. It is important to note that not all people with siblings will have a successful match. According to the National Marrow Donor Program, only 30 percent of bone marrow recipients will find a successful match within their family. In the event that a match within the family cannot be found, doctors check the national bone marrow registry. Finding a successful bone marrow match on the registry is purely luck. Sometimes there is an immediate match and sometimes recipients must wait weeks or months before a match is found.

A patient will be sedated during a bone marrow transplant procedure.
A patient will be sedated during a bone marrow transplant procedure.

It is a common misconception that donating bone marrow is a painful procedure. A blood marrow donor who has been matched with a recipient must undergo surgery. Donors are given anesthesia and hollow needles are used to draw liquid marrow from the back of the pelvis. There will be mild soreness in the lower back for a few days. Most donors return to normal daily activities within a few days and can expect their bone marrow to be completely regenerated within four to six weeks.

Roughly 30 percent of bone marrow recipients will find a match within their family.
Roughly 30 percent of bone marrow recipients will find a match within their family.

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Discussion Comments

anon274752

I am trying to organize a bone marrow transplant drive for an employee's child. He has no match within his family. Can someone suggest what should be included in the announcement?

StreamFinder

Thanks for describing the bone marrow match testing process -- I am considering singing up to be a matcher for bone marrow, and am trying to get all the information I can. This article really cleared some things up for me.

Thanks.

pharmchick78

Nicely written article -- it's true that most people think that a bone marrow test is just terribly painful, but like you said, it's not true.

Most of the time testing for a bone marrow match is less painful than a routine dental procedure, and it's certainly less painful than something like a spinal tap.

Additionally, there are many new procedures coming out for bone marrow aspirations, including one that involves taking a small drill-like object to remove the marrow from only one hole, as opposed to the several that were previously needed.

I would really advise anybody to think about signing up for the Be the Match Bone Marrow program, or your national marrow register -- cancer in the bone marrow is a serious condition, but with enough people as donors, it doesn't have to be the end of the world.

closerfan12

When it comes to bone marrow transplantation, is there a register of people who agree to be tested for bone marrow donor matches, or how does that work?

Do random people just sign up to be bone marrow transplant matches, or what?

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