How bone marrow donation works

Bone marrow donors must have a tissue type compatible with the person who is going to receive their bone marrow.

Tissue type

Tissue type, also known as human leukocyte antigens (HLA) type, helps the body fight infection. To check if the tissue type is compatible, doctors check how many proteins on the surface of the blood cells match. There are millions of different tissue types but some are more common than others.

Tissue type is inherited, with these types being passed on from each parent. This means a relative will be more likely tohave a matching tissue type. However, if a suitable bone marrow donor cannot be found from family members, doctors will try to find someone with a compatible tissue type on the bone marrow donor register.

Joining the register

You must be a blood donor to apply to join the British Bone Marrow Registry (BBMR) as a potential bone marrow donor. Alternatively, you could join the Anthony Nolan Trust register, which does not require you to be a registered blood donor. If you join one register, you do not need to join the other because your details will be automatically shared between registers.

When you apply to join a bone marrow register, you will need to supply a blood or saliva sample so your tissue type can be identified. If you are applying through the Anthony Nolan Trust, they can arrange for a saliva sample to be taken.

You must be:

  • 18 to 49 years of age to join the British Bone Marrow Registry
  • 16 to 30 years of age to join the Anthony Nolan Trust register

You cannot choose who will receive your bone marrow and your donation will remain anonymous. However, over time and if both donor and patient want to, NHS Blood and Transplant can facilitate a written contact between donor and recipient. This can eventually result in face-to-face contact if both individuals are keen for this to happen.

When you join a bone marrow register, your details will be held in compliance with the Data Protection Act (1998). Any samples you provide will not be used for other tests, except those needed for donation and transplant purposes. Your DNA will not be shared with any other organisation.

You can ask to be removed from the BBMR at any time by contacting the donor helpline on 0300 123 2323 or from the Anthony Nolan Trust on 0303 303 0303.

Serious commitment

Most people who join a bone marrow register are never contacted because the chance of a person requiring a donation of your tissue type is relatively low (around one in 100).

However, there is a chance that you may be contacted at some point, so you need to understand that you are making a serious commitment by joining the bone marrow register.

If a person with a life-threatening condition thought that they were going to be saved as a result of your donation, and then you suddenly changed your mind and refused to provide a donation, it is likely to be very traumatic for that person and their loved ones.

Therefore, if you have serious doubts about whether you would be willing to go through with the donation process, it is probably better you do not join the register.

Content supplied by the NHS Website

Medically Reviewed by a doctor on 30 Jun 2016