A young woman laying in a hospital bed attached to a machine taking blood, she is wearing a black t-shirt and trousers, she has long blonde hair and is smiling

Finding a donor for your stem cell transplant

If you're going to receive stem cells donated from someone else – a relative, unrelated donor or cord blood – then doctors need to find a donor whose tissue type matches yours. This page explains how we help to find you a match.

What’s on this page?

Listen to this information

How do we help you find a donor?

At Anthony Nolan, we maintain a register of volunteers who are ready to donate their stem cells to someone in need of a transplant.

If you need a stem cell transplant, we will:

  • search for a matching donor
  • perform the appropriate tests
  •  coordinate the stem cells arriving at your hospital.

What are stem cells?

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

Who will need to have a test?

When we’re looking for a match for your stem cell donor, a few different people might need a test before we start looking into our register.

Your own test

It’s probably no surprise that you’ll need the first test. We test you so the search for your match can begin. This is the process you can expect:

  1. Someone at your hospital or transplant centre will take a blood sample from you.
  2. They will use your blood sample to do a tissue type test.
  3. They will pass on the results to Anthony Nolan so that we can start searching for your match.

Testing your siblings

If you have any, your biological siblings will be tested next. They have the best chance of being a match because you share the same parents. Their local doctor or hospital staff will take their blood samples and send to us for tissue typing.

Other people

Usually, we wouldn’t expect your wider family and friends to have a test, as it’s very unlikely that they will be a match.

However, if they want to help other people who need a stem cell transplant, they could join the Anthony Nolan stem cell register.

How we use the stem cell register

Once your transplant centre gets in touch, we search all the possible register donors in the UK to find your best match. If necessary, we will look for possible donors on registries from across the world. We can also check for cord blood matches in our cord bank.

Shortlisting your donors

Our register search team will make a shortlist of potential donors and send it to your transplant centre within 24 hours. The next steps are as follows:

  1. We contact each donor to make sure they’re still available and able to donate.
  2. The donor gives blood samples which we then send to your transplant centre’s lab.
  3. The lab tests both of your blood samples side by side to see if you’re a good match.

We know it feels really hard to wait, but this whole process can sometimes take a few weeks.

Choosing your donor

After the lab tests the samples to find the best match, your medical team will select your donor by considering these factors and more:

  • Your human leukocyte antigen (HLA) tissue type
  • What’s best for treating your condition

Arranging the donation

After your team have selected your matched donor, we’ll get in touch and arrange for them to have:

  • further blood tests
  • a full medical exam to make sure they’re fit and healthy to donate.

After they’ve donated, we’ll get the stem cells from your donor to you as fast as possible. We’ll have a trained and experienced courier pick up the cells and bring them straight to your transplant centre. We will always do this, from anywhere in the world, within 72 hours.

As a member of the Anthony Nolan search team, I'm one of the first cogs in the wheel when a patient requires a transplant.

Katherine. You can read more about the role of our search team on our blog.

What are we looking for in a matched donor?

For a transplant to take place, your donor’s tissue type must match your own. We base matching on your human leukocyte antigen (HLA) tissue type. Your HLA is part of what makes you ‘you’ – your individual, genetic characteristics.

We test to see if you are positive for cytomegalovirus (CMV) – a very common virus that often has no side effects. Ideally, we want to find a donor who tests the same for this virus as you do. Research shows that when you and your donor have matched CMV status, it helps improve transplant success.

Finally, we will consider the age of your donor. We do this because our research has confirmed that transplants are generally more successful with younger donors.

Understanding HLA

Your HLA tissue type is made up of many genes, but when it comes to matching, we are most interested in six of them. Each of these six genes has two different versions (called alleles), making 12 in total. You inherit one version from your mother and one from your father.

When it comes to matching you with a donor:

  • If 11 of these genes match up, it’s called an 11/12 match.
  • If all 12 genes match, you’ve got a 12/12 match.

It’s important that your doctors find the most possible matches out of 12 – this will give your body the best chance of accepting your donor’s stem cells.

Finding a donor if you’re from a minority ethnic background or have a rare tissue type

Generally speaking, you’re more likely to find a matching donor from someone with a similar ethnic background. However, it is sometimes possible to be a donor for someone of any ethnic background.

At Anthony Nolan we are working really hard, both in the UK and internationally, to encourage people from minority ethnic backgrounds to join their country’s stem cell registers. We’re also promoting the use of alternative sources of stem cells and looking at ways to make them more accessible.

If you have an HLA tissue type that’s rare or less common, it may be harder to find a match because there may be fewer people with your type.

If we cannot find you a suitable adult donor, your transplant team will discuss possible options with you:

What if a donor isn't found straight away?

Our search team at Anthony Nolan will try their best to find you a donor as quickly as possible. Your transplant coordinator will get regular updates on the progress of the search – if there are any difficulties, they’ll let you know. Depending on your condition, you may need additional treatment to help with your symptoms during this time.

What can I do while waiting?

While waiting for a transplant or news on a donor, you, your friends or your family might want to raise awareness by encouraging people to sign up to the Anthony Nolan register. You could also consider launching a patient appeal to recruit potential donors. It could give you something to focus your energy on and help save lives at the same time.

But it’s important to bear in mind that launching your own appeal is very unlikely to find a matching donor for you or your loved one. However, with thousands of new potential donors added to registers around the world every day, your doctors and our search team will be focused on finding you the best possible match.

I don't live in the UK – can you find me a donor?

If you live outside the UK, it’s still possible for us to search our register, but the search request must come from your country’s own stem cell or bone marrow register

Your hospital will be able to contact your country’s register for you. We cannot accept a request to find a donor from an individual or their family, it must come from a hospital or medical professional.

As we’re not a hospital, we can’t organise the transplants ourselves either. We don't currently have any financial support programmes for people outside of the United Kingdom.

Information last updated: 24/05/2024

Next review due: 24/05/2027