Widely used for the treatment of cancer, bone marrow transplant is a medical procedure wherein damaged bone marrow is replaced with healthy bone marrow stem cells. Its use for the treatment of various types of cancers can be attributed to the fact that it helps patient receive high doses of chemotherapy or radiation therapy meant to kill the cancerous cells. Bone marrow transplant is quite popular when it comes to treatment of major types of cancers – including leukaemia and lymphoma. Though helpful, this procedure has some side effects of its own. These range from mild complications, such as nausea and vomiting, to some severe ones, such as liver damage and development of secondary cancers, which may eventually result in death.
An overview of bone marrow transplant
Bone marrow is a soft material found within the bones which contains immature cells referred to as hematopoietic stem cells. These are the same cells which eventually mature into three different types of blood cells – the white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. The process by which bone marrow is obtained from the donor is referred to as ‘harvesting’. In this process, a needle is inserted through the skin of the person into the bone at the site from where the bone marrow is to be obtained, and the same is drawn out. The entire process takes somewhere around an hour and the donor is administered general anaesthesia in course of this process. After intensive chemotherapy or radiation therapy is complete, the patient is given an infusion of the harvested bone marrow by means of intravenous line. This is followed by the process of ‘engraftment’, wherein the new stem cells find their way to the bone marrow and re-establish normal production of different types of blood cells. If engraftment is slow, the patient is administered medicine which stimulates bone marrow to produce blood cells.
Side effects that the recipient is likely to experience
The side effects of this medical procedure, for the recipient, are much more severe as compared to those of chemotherapy, as the patient is administered higher doses of drugs in this case. Of the various risks involved, the risk of bleeding and infection, which can be attributed to high-dose of cancer treatment, is quite high. The short-term effects of bone narrow transplant on the recipient include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, fatigue etc. At the same time, the person is also likely to suffer from hair loss, mouth sores and skin reaction after bone marrow transplant.
On the other hand, the long-term effects of the same include infertility, cataracts, development of secondary cancers, etc. Approximately 10-50 percent of the patients who opt for allogeneic transplants – wherein the patient receives stem cells from his immediate family members, suffer from graft versus host disease (GVHD). In this case, the white blood cells from the donor’s body consider the cells in patient’s body to be foreign objects, and attack them – as a result of which, the patient suffers from problems like skin rash, diarrhoea and liver failure. The fall in platelet count as a result of non-functioning bone marrow can impair blood clotting and result in bleeding in brain, lungs, intestines, etc., and eventually result in further complications.
Even though the chances are as little as 1 percent, engraftment failure – wherein the newly transferred stem cells fail to begin production of new stem cells, cannot be ruled out. Even though the possibility of treatment related death also exists, it depends on various factors including the patient’s age, the type of transplant that the person resorts to, etc. Similarly, the risk of infection continues for a few months after the transplant procedure, in course of which the patient has to keep an eye for various symptoms of infection.
Side effects that the donor is likely to experience
Only a small amount of bone marrow is obtained from the donor in the process of harvesting, and that doesn’t really pose much harm to the individual. The area around the site from where the bone marrow was obtained may feel stiff for a few days. While the donated bone marrow is replaced within a few days from the day of harvesting, the exact period of the same varies from person to person. While some people get back to routine within a week, others take as many as 3-4 weeks before things fall back in place. Even though there are hardly any severe side effects for the donor, the complications attributed to the use of anaesthesia during harvesting cannot be ruled out.
One has to take into consideration all the benefits and potential side effects of bone marrow transplant before opting for it. Even though the chances of patient succumbing to this treatment procedure or that of a relapse cannot be ruled out, the fact that the person’s quality of life improves by a great extent after a successful transplant is surely a driving factor which prompts many people to opt for it.