Side Effects of Stem Cell/Bone Marrow Transplantation …

Posted: May 11, 2015 at 3:47 pm

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Although a stem cell transplant (sometimes called a bone marrow transplant) is an effective treatment for several types of cancer, it can cause a number of different side effects. The type and intensity of these side effects vary from person to person and depend on the kind of transplant performed, the person's overall health, and other factors. Your health care team will work with you to prevent side effects or manage any that occur. This is called palliative or supportive care and is an important part of your overall treatment plan. Be sure to talk with your health care team about any side effects you experience, including new symptoms or a change in symptoms.

The two most serious side effects of stem cell transplantation are infection and graft-versus-host disease.


The chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy given before a stem cell transplant weakens a persons immune system, lowering the bodys defenses against bacteria, viruses, and fungi. That means stem cell recipients are especially vulnerable to infection during this early period of treatment.

Although most people think the greatest risk of infection is from visitors or food, most infections that occur during the first few weeks after a transplant are caused by organisms that are already in the patient's lungs, sinuses, skin, and intestines. Fortunately, most of these infections are relatively easy to treat with antibiotics.

The reduced immunity of the early transplant period lasts about two weeks, after which the immune system is back to near full strength and can keep most common germs at bay without the help of medications. This is true for both autologous (AUTO) transplant recipients (who receive their own stem cells) and allogeneic (ALLO) transplant recipients (who receive stem cells from another person).

However, a risk of serious infection remains for ALLO transplant recipients because they are given anti-rejection drugs. These drugs suppress the immune system to prevent the body from rejecting the donors stem cells. However, this low immunity also leaves the body more at risk for infection. This risk increases when more anti-rejection drugs are needed. Your treatment team will work with you to prevent and manage infections.

Graft-versus-host disease

People who have an ALLO transplant are also at risk of developing a post-transplant illness called graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). It occurs when the transplanted stem cells recognize the patients body as foreign and attack it, causing inflammation. GVHD ranges from mild to life-threatening. AUTO transplant recipients do not face this risk because the transplanted stem cells come from their own bodies.

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