Healthcare professionals and patients in a clinical setting

Autologous stem cell transplants

If you have a condition that affects your blood or bone marrow, you might need a type of stem cell transplant. Autologous stem cell transplants use existing stem cells from your own body. On this page, we explain what this means and what the transplant involves.

What’s on this page?

What is an autologous stem cell transplant?

If you have an autologous transplant, doctors collect and use your own stem cells. They then put your own, healthy cells back into your body after you’ve had chemotherapy as part of your conditioning therapy. An autologous transplant is also known as an ‘autograft’ or ‘auto’.

What is a stem cell transplant?

If you haven’t yet read our page on understanding stem cell transplants, we recommend taking a look at the information to help you learn what it involves.

Who might have an autologous transplant?

An autologous transplant could be a good treatment option for some people, but not for others. We’ll explain some of the different situations where you could have an autologous stem cell transplant as treatment.

If you have a blood cancer

If you’ve already had chemotherapy but your blood cancer has come back, your doctors may recommend an autologous transplant.

If you have myeloma or a type of lymphoma, your doctors may suggest an autologous transplant as a ‘consolidation treatment’. This means having the transplant could help stop your disease coming back after chemotherapy.

If you have another type of cancer

For certain cancers, like germ cell tumours or sarcoma, the treatment involves very strong doses of chemotherapy that can destroy your immune system. After your treatment, having an autologous transplant allows your immune system to recover and rebuild.

If you have a non-cancerous condition affecting your immune system

In rare cases, an autologous transplant can help to treat severe autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS) and Crohn’s disease. Your medical team might offer this when other standard treatments have failed.

If you have an autoimmune disease, it means your own cells have started to attack your body. Chemotherapy removes the damaged cells in your immune system and the autologous transplant allows your system to ‘reset’.

It had been nine weeks since my own stem cells had been collected from me. My counsellor (she’s brilliant) told me to treat this waiting period as a ‘practice recovery’. She helped me to welcome the procedure rather than fear it.

Lucy had an autologous transplant to treat her non-Hodgkin lymphoma. You can read her story on our blog.

What will happen before an autologous transplant?

Before your autologous transplant, doctors will:

  1. collect your stem cells
  2. prepare your body with conditioning therapy

Depending on your disease or condition, you might have chemotherapy weeks or months before to prepare you for the transplant. If you have blood cancer, for example, chemotherapy will get your condition into ‘remission’ – this means there are no longer any signs of cancer in your body.

1. Collecting your stem cells

You will go into hospital to have your own stem cells collected. This will happen weeks or months before your transplant day, but timing may vary depending on your situation.

Doctors normally collect stem cells in a process called peripheral blood stem cell collection (PBSC). In this process, they connect you to a machine which takes blood from one arm, removes the stem cells and returns your blood to the other arm.

Sometimes your transplant team may need to collect stem cells directly from your bone marrow by doing a small operation, but this is much less common. After collection, you will have your stem cells frozen and stored until the day of your autologous transplant.

2. Conditioning therapy

Before your autologous stem cell transplant, doctors need to treat and prepare your bone marrow and immune system for the new cells. This is called conditioning therapy.

To do this, you’ll undergo a process called chemotherapy. You’ll normally start this on the day you go into hospital. It can take 1-10 days, or sometimes even longer depending on your treatment. Your autologous transplant normally takes place the day after your conditioning therapy has finished.

What will happen during an autologous transplant?

An autologous transplant involves having your frozen stem cells thawed out and given to you through your bloodstream – often through your CVC or PICC line.

Overall, it’s a bit like having a regular blood transfusion. You shouldn’t experience any pain and you’ll be awake the whole time.

Recovering from an autologous stem cell transplant

You’ll probably stay in hospital for about two or three weeks after your transplant – you’ll need to spend some time in protective isolation. This usually means staying in your own hospital room with safety measures taken to protect you from infection. For more information, see our page on staying in protective isolation.

Once you get back home, you might find that it takes at least three to six months before your level of activity starts getting back to what you’re used to.

Will I get side effects after an autologous stem cell transplant?

After any type of transplant, many people experience a range of side effects, both short and long term. Most side effects apply to all types of transplants, while others are more specific to certain types.

Information updated: 23/05/2024

Next review due: 23/05/2027