Bone marrow

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The soft, spongy tissue in the center of large bones that produces white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. It is the blood cell ‘factory’. Healthy bone marrow releases blood cells into the bloodstream when they are mature and when required.

Without bone marrow, our bodies could not produce the white cells we need to fight infection, the red blood cells we need to carry oxygen, and the platelets we need to stop bleeding.

Some illnesses and treatments can destroy the bone marrow. This leaves the person unable to make the new blood cells they need to fight infection and recover. In some cases, the best treatment is a transplant of bone marrow donated by another person.

Diseases of bone marrow

There are a number of diseases that affect the bone marrow including:

  • Leukaemia – a cancer of the blood that starts in the bone marrow. We do not know its exact cause. Symptoms include anaemia, bruising and nose bleeds. Treatment includes chemotherapy (drugs) and radiotherapy, and sometimes a bone marrow transplant from a healthy compatible person
  • Reticulum cell sarcoma of bone – a cancerous tumour of the bone marrow, occurring more often in males than in females. Symptoms include pain and swelling. Treatment includes radiotherapy
  • Aplastic anaemia – a person stops making blood. This happens mostly in people aged between 15 and 30. The person may have the condition at birth, or certain drugs, chemicals or radiation may be the cause. Often the cause is unknown. Symptoms include weakness, fever and skin haemorrhages (bleeding). Blood transfusions may help for a time, but a severely affected person may die unless they receive a transplant of normal bone marrow
  • Defective immune system – some children are born with a defective immune system and are unable to fight disease. Blood transfusions can help, but in the most serious cases, the person will only respond to a bone marrow transplant.

Bone marrow transplant procedure

In a transplant operation, the person receiving the marrow (recipient) is treated with a high dose of chemotherapy or radiotherapy to destroy their diseased cells. The donor’s bone marrow cells are then injected into a vein, just like a blood transfusion. The donor marrow finds the bones and settles into the cavities.

Donating bone marrow can save another person’s life. Bone marrow donors are matched with people who need a transplant to survive. The donor must have the same tissue type as the recipient. Doctors can check a person’s tissue type with a simple blood test.


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