If you're having stem cells donated from someone else – a relative, an unrelated donor or umbilical cord blood then doctors need to find a donor whose tissue type matches yours.
Matching is done based on your human leukocyte antigen (HLA) tissue type.
Your HLA is what makes you 'you' - it's your individual genetic characteristic. You inherit a set of HLA from each of your parents. Your HLA is made up of genes and alleles (different forms of genes), we look at 10 of these to match you up with a donor.
When it comes to matching you with a donor - if 9 of these genes match up, it's a 9/10 match. If all 10 match, then you've got yourself a 10/10 match.
We try and find a match because your body needs to accept the donor's stem cells. This is called engraftment.
Your hospital will arrange for you to have your HLA type investigated to find out your tissue type. Tissue typing involves taking a small blood sample, and normally takes about two weeks for the results to come back from the laboratory.
Read our leaflet The little guide for transplant patients for more information.
If you have brothers or sisters, you have a 30% chance of them having the same tissue type as you, and they could be your donor. Read more in our section on sibling transplants.
Read our booklet Donating to your relative for more information on the matching and donation process for siblings and other relatives.
Because they have not inherited the same genes from your parents, doctors won’t test your other relatives like cousins, as they are very unlikely to be a match.
If you do not have a brother or sister who is a match, your transplant co-ordinator will send details of your tissue type to our Search team at Anthony Nolan and request that we search our register of donors to try and find a stranger who may be a match for you.
Once your transplant centre gets in touch with us, we look at our register to search all the donors in the UK. We’ll also have a look at what donors are available for you internationally. If your hospital requests it, we’ll also check if there’s a match for you in our cord bank. Find out more about having a cord blood transplant.
Choosing your donor
The lab will test the samples to find the best match. We know it’s hard to wait but this process can sometimes take a few weeks. After all the factors have been considered, such as your HLA tissue type and what is best for treating your disease, your doctor will choose your donor from a shortlist.
We arrange for donors to give their stem cells
When someone comes up as a match for you on our system, we’ll get in touch and arrange for them to have blood tests and a full medical to make sure they’re a fit and healthy to donate.
Once they donated, we’ll arrange for your stem cells to go from your donor to you as fast as possible. We’ll have a trained and experienced volunteer courier ready to pick them up as soon as your donor has given them – and bring them straight to your transplant centre.
Your transplant co-ordinator will be keeping track of the progress of the search for your donor. If there are any difficulties with finding you a match, they’ll let you know. They might consider a cord blood transplant or a haploidentical transplant if they feel this would be the right treatment for you.
If there is any delay in finding you a donor, you might also need to have some further chemotherapy. It’s a good idea to ask your transplant co-ordinator to keep you updated, so you’re fully informed.
If you have a HLA tissue type that is rare or less common, doctors may find it harder to find you a matching donor, because there are less people in the world with the same tissue type as yours.
And because HLA tissue types are inherited, the best chance of finding a suitable donor may be with someone from the same racial or ethnic background as you.
In the past, it’s been more of a challenge to find donors for people from black, Asian or ethnic minority backgrounds, but at Anthony Nolan, we’re encouraging more people from these backgrounds to join our stem cell register or donate cord blood.
If we can’t find you an adult donor, your transplant team may decide that a cord blood transplant is a good option. The stem cells within cord blood are still ‘immature’ and this means they don’t have to be so closely matched to yours.
Another option is a haploidentical transplant, this would involve using stem cells from a family member whose HLA is half matched to yours. Find out more about haploidentical transplants.
The transplant centre wouldn't usually test the wider family and friends as it is highly unlikely that they would be a suitable donor. This is because there are so many different tissue types in the world.
If your friends and family members want to help people in need of a transplant, then they may be interested in joining the Anthony Nolan register.
At Anthony Nolan, our Search team cannot accept search requests from individual patients or their families. All requests should come through the patient’s national stem cell/bone marrow registry.
There may be a bone marrow donor registry in your area that can help.
Unfortunately, we're not a hospital and we don’t actually do the transplants ourselves or arrange them. At the moment we don't have any financial support programmes for people outside of the United Kingdom.
While waiting for a transplant some patients, or their friends and families decide they’d like to help raise awareness of the Anthony Nolan register and get their friends and family to sign-up.
It can be great to have something to focus your energy on, and encouraging people to join the register is vital because the more people we have on the register, the more matches we can find.
But it’s important to bear in mind that it’s actually very unlikely that we will find a matching donor for you or your loved one through your own appeal. This is because there are so many different tissue types in the world.
So although it is highly unlikely that your appeal would find a donor for you, you should remember that there are appeals going on every day around the world which help us to find a match for you, or anybody else that needs a match.