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Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Stem cell transplantation for leukemia

Stem cell transplantation for leukemia

A stem cell transplant can be used to restore healthy bone marrow in patients with leukemia. Stem cells help stimulate new bone marrow growth and restore the immune system.

Before a stem cell transplant for leukemia, you will undergo a conditioning regimen, which involves intensive treatment to destroy as many leukemia cells as possible. You may receive high doses of chemotherapy and, in some cases, radiation therapy. You may also receive reduced-intensity conditioning (a “mini-allogeneic transplant”), which uses lower, less toxic doses of chemotherapy and/or total body irradiation (TBI) before the transplant.

Once this preparative regimen is complete, you are ready to undergo the transplant. Much like a blood transfusion, you’ll receive the stem cells intravenously. The procedure takes about an hour. After entering the bloodstream, the stem cells travel to the bone marrow and start to make new blood cells in a process known as engraftment.

In the months following the transplant, your care team will monitor your blood counts. You may need transfusions of red blood cells and platelets. Sometimes, the intensive treatments you receive before the stem cell transplantation for leukemia can cause side effects, like infection. In this case, your doctor may administer IV antibiotics.

If you had an allogeneic stem cell transplant, your doctor may prescribe certain drugs to reduce the risk of graft-versus-host-disease (GVHD), a condition where the donated cells attack the patient's tissues.

Helping you maintain your quality of life after a transplant

Recovery from a leukemia stem cell transplant can take several months. Your hematologic oncology team will work together with the rest of your care team to support you throughout the entire process.

For example, our dietitians may suggest a healthy diet to nutritionally fortify your body, and our naturopathic clinicians may recommend natural therapies to help reduce side effects, such as neuropathy. A rehabilitation therapist may recommend safe levels of physical activity to help you stay active and independent.

Additionally, your pain management practitioner may recommend various techniques to help alleviate discomfort and control bone and neuropathic pain, while your mind-body therapist will provide counseling and relaxation techniques.

What is stem cell transplantation?

A stem cell transplant (also called hematopoietic progenitor cell transplantation) infuses healthy blood-forming stem cells into the body. Stem cells can be collected from the bone marrow, circulating (peripheral) blood, and umbilical cord blood.

There are two main types of stem cell transplants:

  • Autologous stem cell transplant: In this type of stem cell transplant, stem cells are collected from the patient themselves. The stem cells are removed from the patient's blood, harvested, frozen and stored until needed, then given back to the patient after he/she has received high dose chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy to destroy the cancer cells.
  • Allogeneic stem cell transplant: In this type of transplant, stem cells are taken from a matching donor. Donors may include a relative/family member (e.g., sibling), unrelated individual, or saved umbilical cord blood. To determine if a donor’s stem cells are the right match, the patient undergoes a human leukocyte antigens (HLA) test. In an HLA test, we compare the patient’s blood and tissue type with blood samples from the donor.

An advantage of an allogeneic transplant is that the stem cells come from a healthy donor with no malignant cells. However, since it can be difficult to find a matching donor, an autologous transplant is usually more common.