Stem Cell vs. Bone Marrow Transplant: Uses, Benefits, Side Effects and More

Replacing unhealthy cells with healthy cells

A bone marrow transplant is a type of stem cell transplant; sometimes, the terms are used interchangeably. These procedures are used for treating certain types of cancer or immune diseases.

These transplants involve the infusion of a person’s own cells or cells donated from another person intravenously (in a vein through an IV line) to replace diseased cells with healthy cells. 

The main difference between bone marrow transplants and other types of stem cell transplants is that the stem cells used in a bone marrow transplant come from the bone marrow, while stem cells used for a transplant can also come from peripheral blood or umbilical cord blood. 

Person receives a bone marrow or stem cell transplant by infusion

tirc83 / Getty Images

What to Know About Stem Cell Transplant 

Stem cells are immature cells that have the potential to develop into different types of mature cells. Immature blood cells are typically used for stem cell transplants. They can develop into healthy red blood cells or white blood cells.

The procedure can be used to treat lymphoma, leukemia, and multiple myeloma, which are white blood cell cancers. They can also treat some immune diseases caused by dysfunctional white blood cells, such as multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, and more.

Some red blood cell diseases, such as sickle cell disease, can be treated with a stem cell transplant. 

How Does Stem Cell Transplant Work? 

Peripheral blood stem cell transplants are the most common type of stem cell transplant worldwide. They can use a person's stem cells (autologous) collected from their blood or donor stem cells (allogeneic) from peripheral blood or umbilical cord blood.

Sometimes chemotherapy treatment is used to destroy cancer cells before the stem cell transplant. When it's used for treating immune disease, the process involves pretreatment with medication that suppresses the unhealthy cells, followed by an infusion of the healthy stem cells.

Immune suppression is needed in some cases after the transplant to prevent the rejection of the transplanted cells. 

Stem Cell Transplant Delivery

A stem cell transplant is infused through an IV. The procedure can take several hours.

It’s important that you’re monitored during your infusion. You might need fluid management or treatment to maintain your blood pressure and heart function. 

Side Effects

A stem cell transplant has some potential adverse reactions and side effects. These can be caused by chemotherapy, immune suppression, or the transplanted cells.

Common side effects include: 

  • Nausea, vomiting, mouth sores from the chemotherapy 
  • Fatigue 
  • Anemia (low red blood cells) or thrombocytopenia (low platelets) from the pretreatment
  • Risk of infections due to immune suppression
  • Graft versus host disease after a donor transplant, in which the new cells begin to attack your tissues
  • Risk of developing another type of cancer 
  • Transplant failure

What to Know About Bone Marrow Transplant 

A bone marrow transplant is when the stem cells are obtained from the bone marrow instead of peripheral blood or umbilical blood. Usually, the bone marrow used for this type of procedure is donated by another person.

How Does Bone Marrow Transplant Work? 

A bone marrow transplant uses stem cells collected from the bone marrow. Although this procedure can be somewhat painful for the donor, it is not harmful. The collection of bone marrow stem cells requires a procedure in which a needle is placed into the bone marrow.

Bone Marrow Transplant Delivery

A bone marrow transplant is delivered to the recipient the same way that a peripheral blood or umbilical cord transplant is delivered, through an IV line.

Side Effects

The side effects of a bone marrow transplant are the same as those of other types of stem cell transplants.  

Cost

Stem cell transplants, including bone marrow transplants, are costly, running several thousand dollars. Because this intervention is used for treating serious diseases, it is usually covered by health insurance plans. Check with your healthcare provider and insurer to see whether you will have to pay any portion of the cost.

Which Treatment Is Best for You?

The proper treatment for you depends on the condition you’re being treated for, your overall health, and whether you need to have a transplant of your cells or from a donor. 

You and your medical team will need to discuss your pretreatment plan.

The guidelines regarding the indications for each type of transplant and the pretreatment regimens are changing. In general, peripheral and umbilical stem cell transplants are considered more practical and accessible than bone marrow transplants.

Some evidence suggests that survival is equivalent between the different types of stem cell transplants.

Some pros and cons of each:

  • People with bone marrow failure diseases are more likely to have successful treatment by a bone marrow transplant than a peripheral blood transplant.
  • A bone marrow transplant may be less likely to induce graft versus host disease than a peripheral blood stem cell transplant.
  • For some people, a peripheral blood stem cell transplant is associated with a faster recovery.

HLA Matching

If you are getting a transplant from a donor, your medical team will begin by looking for a person who is a close match to your immune system, so your body will be less likely to reject the transplant. This is called HLA matching, and a related donor is likelier to be a good match.

Can You Have a Stem Cell Transplant and Bone Marrow Transplant Together? 

Generally, a person will have either a stem cell or a bone marrow transplant, but not both. If you have one of these treatments and then later develop a different type of cancer or immune disease that also needs treatment with a stem cell transplant, you might have the same type of procedure or a different procedure at that time.

Coping With Side Effects 

Since you can develop side effects during the procedure, immediately afterward, or later, there are protocols for helping prevent adverse reactions and for coping with any side effects.

Your specific side effect risks are impacted by the type of condition you’re being treated for, which medications you have taken for treatment of your condition, which medications you’ve been prescribed to help transplant success, and your overall health.

Some tips to help you cope:

  • Rest: Get as much rest as you need in the weeks after your transplant. If you still think you are more tired than expected, talk to your medical team about it.
  • Nausea: Consider using ginger or other natural remedies to help alleviate nausea. Stick to foods that don’t have a bothersome smell, texture, or taste.
  • Nutrition: Eat small frequent, nutrient-packed meals.
  • Infection risk: When your white blood cell counts are low, avoid crowds or anyone with a high chance of having a contagious infection.
  • Weight loss: Try to keep up some physical activity, like walking daily, to maintain muscle strength.

In addition to lifestyle management, your healthcare provider may also prescribe medications to alleviate side effects,

Summary 

A bone marrow transplant is a type of stem cell transplant. Peripheral blood and umbilical cord blood can also be used for stem cell transplants. The number of diseases that can be treated with stem cell transplant procedures is increasing, including blood cancers, sickle cell disease, and many different autoimmune diseases.

The process involves medication or chemotherapy to destroy the diseased cells, followed by infusion of the stem cells. Usually, immunosuppression is needed after the transplant so that the body will accept the new cells.

It's easier to obtain peripheral blood for a stem cell transplant, and research is still examining the outcomes of the types of stem cell transplants for different conditions.

A Word From Verywell 

Having a stem cell transplant or a bone marrow transplant involves a process of preparation and treatment that begins before the transplant infusion and continues after the infusion procedure is completed. These procedures can be highly effective, and they can cure diseases for many people.

You might remain at risk of infections for some time after your transplant, so it’s important to maintain precautions to reduce your risk of getting a severe infection. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does donating stem cells for bone marrow transplant harm your health?

    No, donating stem cells is not harmful to the donor, even when the cells are obtained from the bone marrow. If you’re donating bone marrow to someone, you may feel some discomfort or pain during the cell collection, but this doesn’t harm your bones or your health. It's a very low-risk procedure. 

  • Do adults have stem cells?

    Yes, while umbilical cord is known for having stem cells, adults also have stem cells that can be used for their own transplant or donated to someone for a stem cell transplant.

Was this page helpful?
6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Alexander T, Greco R. Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation and cellular therapies for autoimmune diseases: overview and future considerations from the Autoimmune Diseases Working Party (ADWP) of the European Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation (EBMT). Bone Marrow Transplant. 2022:1–8. doi:10.1038/s41409-022-01702-w

  2. Amouzegar A, Dey BR, Spitzer TR. Peripheral blood or bone marrow stem cells? Practical considerations in hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. Transfus Med Rev. 2019;33(1):43-50. doi:10.1016/j.tmrv.2018.11.003

  3. American Cancer Society. Stem cell or bone marrow transplant side effects.

  4. Holtick U, Albrecht M, Chemnitz JM, et al. Bone marrow versus peripheral blood allogeneic haematopoietic stem cell transplantation for haematological malignancies in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014;(4):CD010189. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD010189.pub2

  5. Lim YJ, Arbiv OA, Kalbfleisch ME, et al. Poor outcome after hematopoietic stem cell transplantation of patients with unclassified inherited bone marrow failure syndromes. Eur J Haematol. 2022;108(4):278-287. doi:10.1111/ejh.13733

  6. Al-Shaibani E, Bautista R, Lipton JH, et al. Comparison of outcomes after second allogeneic hematopoietic cell transplantation versus donor lymphocyte infusion in allogeneic hematopoietic cell transplant patients. Clin Lymphoma Myeloma Leuk. 2022;22(5):e327-e334. doi:10.1016/j.clml.2021.11.004