If you have thought about donating stem cells, either for the benefit of a loved one, as a charitable act for the community or to store your own cells for future use, it’s important to know the guidelines for donation. Not everyone can donate stem cells. Depending where you live, there are specific rules and laws that govern the donation process, spell out who can donate, who can’t donate, and under what circumstances a donation can be made.

The General Rules About Who Can Donate

Donating stem cells for any reason is a very serious thing. Of course, many people desperately need donated stem cells for various kinds of cancer treatments.

Note that in most cases, you’ll read about “stem cell donation” being the same thing as “bone marrow donation.” While the donation rules are the same for both kinds of donors, there are, technically speaking, differences between stem cell transplants and bone marrow transplants.

If you have a stem cell transplant, or donate stem cells for a stem cell transplant, you’ll simply be giving blood from your veins via a needle. Or, you’ll be receiving an injection into your veins of donor stem cell blood.

The other, rarer kind of procedure is a bone marrow transplant, in which stem cells are taken from a donor’s hip bone and injected into the bone marrow of the recipient. In the vast majority of cases, when you hear of someone “donating stem cells,” they are merely donating blood sample that is taken from their arm, NOT from their bones. However, many of the same laws and screening procedures apply to both the bone-based and blood-based stem cell donation process.

To differentiate, experts use the term PBSC donation, meaning “peripheral blood stem cell,” as opposed to the bone marrow stem cells. It’s also helpful to know some general things about donating stem cells, aside from the specifics about who can donate.

  • For five days before you make your donation, doctors will give you several injections of a drug that enhances your body’s ability to produce stem cells
  • When you donate, there will be two tubes connected to your arms. One will be removing blood and sifting out the stem cells. The other tube will return your blood, after the stem cells have been removed.
  • In most cases, you’ll be able to donate during an 8-hour session on just one day
  • If it’s necessary to have you donate over a two-day period, you’ll only need to spend between 4 and 6 hours for each of the two sessions

Who Can Donate Stem Cells?

In general, you need to be between the ages of 18 and 44 and meet several specific health guidelines. In most cases, however, it’s enough to be in generally good health, free of disease and not taking any long-term medication for serious medical conditions. In detail, here are the rules for donors:

To be on most of the major donor lists or be accepted by a hospital as a donor, you need to:

  • Not have been diagnosed with AIDS/HIV
  • Be between 18 and 44
  • Have no life-threatening allergies
  • Not have severe asthma, arthritis, or auto-immune diseases
  • Not have hemophilia, high blood pressure or any kind of brain injury or have undergone surgery to your brain tissue
  • Not have cancer or a history of cancer
  • Not have any mental health issues
  • Not have a chemical dependency problem
  • Not suffer from depression
  • Not have a cold or the flu at the time of donation
  • Not have chronic back, hip, neck, or spine pain
  • Not have diabetes, epilepsy or heart disease
  • Not have ever had a stroke
  • Not have serious kidney or liver problems
  • Not be currently pregnant
  • Not be significantly over- or under-weight

Some Major Myths About Donating Peripheral Blood Stem Cells (PBSC)

Note that each of the following myths about stem cell donation is followed by the correct version of the fact, in parentheses.

  • MYTH: It’s going to hurt and you’ll hate it. (Fact: It’s a simple procedure that involves donating blood via a needle in your arms and two tubes, one to take the blood out, and one to put it back in. You will need to take injections of a marrow-enhancing drug for a few days prior to donation, and the drug might have some mild side-effects, but other than that, there is no pain or discomfort involved)
  • MYTH:Donating is extremely inconvenient and takes all day. (Fact: On the day of the donation, you are hooked up to a special machine that removes blood from one are, separates out the stem cells, and then returns it to your body. The whole process takes between 6 and 8 hours, after which you’ll be able to go directly home)
  • MYTH:It’s the same as a bone marrow transplant. (Fact: About 90 percent of all stem cell donations nowadays are taken directly from the blood, not from the bone)
  • MYTH:There’s no need to donate because everyone who needs stem cells can just get them from a family member who donates. (Fact: Only about 25 percent of people who need stem cells have a family member who matches their specific antigen type. Millions of cancer patients have no other way of receiving stem cells unless they get them from anonymous donors)
  • MYTH:Joining a national stem cell registry is a complex process. (Fact: It’s actually very simple. If you are between the ages of 18 and 44, contact the registry and they’ll send you a kit. The kit includes information for you and a cotton swab. You just need to rub the cotton on the inside of your mouth and place it in the included plastic bag and then return it to the registry. They’ll test it and inform you if you are now part of the stem cell national registry)
  • MYTH:There’s no need to donate because millions of people already do. (Fact: There is always a shortage of stem cells for certain groups of people who suffer from various conditions. You are always helping someone when you donate stem cells)

Check Your Local Laws

Rules for donating stem cells are quite different from country to country, for example. But, there are also state-specific rules in the U.S. about employers giving workers paid leave in order to donate. That’s why it’s essential that you check with your local medical providers to find out whether you can donate. It’s always a good idea to find out who can and cannot donate in your jurisdiction before you make a plan, or a promise, to someone about donating your stem cells for their use.

Usually, you can simply ask you own doctor about the procedure and he or she will be able to tell you the local laws and regulations that apply for your situation based on locality, your age, and your particular state of health.