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 receiving 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.

What’s on this page?

What we do

At Anthony Nolan, we maintain a register of willing volunteers who are ready to donate their stem cells to someone in need of a transplant. We will search for a matching donor, perform the appropriate tests and co-ordinate the stem cells arriving at hospital.

Who will be tested?

You – Unsurprisingly you will be tested first so that the search for your match can begin. Someone at your hospital or transplant centre will take a blood sample to do a tissue type test. The results will be passed on to Anthony Nolan so that we can start searching.

Your siblings - If you have any, your brothers or sisters will be tested next. They have the best chance of being a perfect match for you because they share the same parents. Blood samples will be taken by their local doctor/hospital and sent for tissue typing.

Anyone else? - Usually your wider family and friends will not be tested as it’s very unlikely that they will be a match. If they want to help other people in need of a stem cell transplant, then they may be interested in joining the Anthony Nolan register.

Searching our registry

Once your transplant centre gets in touch, we search all the possible 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.

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.

Catherine. You can read more about the role of our search team in their blog.

Shortlisting your donors – our search team will make a shortlist of potential matching donors and send it to your transplant centre within 24 hours. We’ll contact each donor and ensure they’re still available and able to donate. They will then give some blood samples. They will be sent to your transplant centre’s labs, where your blood samples will be tested side by sideWe know it’s hard to wait but this process can sometimes take a few weeks.

Choosing your donor  the lab will test the samples to find the best match. After all the factors have been considered, such as your HLA tissue type and what’s best for treating your condition, your medical team will select your donor.

Arranging the donation when your matched donor has been selected, we’ll get in touch and arrange for them to have further blood tests and a full medical to make sure they’re fit and healthy to donate.

Once they donate, we’ll arrange for the stem cells to get from your donor to you as fast as possible. We’ll have a trained and experienced volunteer courier ready to pick the cells up and bring them straight to your transplant centre. This is always done, from anywhere in the world, within 72 hours.

What are we looking for?

For a transplant to take place, you need to have a donor whose tissue type matches your own. Matching is based on your human leukocyte antigen (HLA) tissue type. Your HLA is part of what makes you ‘you’ – your individual genetic characteristics.

Your HLA type is made up of many genes, but when it comes to matching, we are most interested in six of them. Each one of these 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 match then you’ve got yourself a 12/12 match. It’s important that your doctors find the best possible match because this will give your body the best possible chance of accepting your donor’s stem cells.

We test to see if you are positive for cytomegalovirus (or CMV for short) – 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. There is now growing evidence that when a patient and donor have matched CMV status, it helps improve transplant success.

Finally, we will consider the age of your donor too. This is because our research has confirmed that transplants are generally more successful when younger donors are selected.

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

Patients are more likely to find a matching donor from someone with a similar ethnic background because our HLA tissue types are inherited – although it’s possible to be a donor for someone of any ethic background. Anthony Nolan is hard at work, both in the UK and internationally, to encourage people from minority ethnic backgrounds to join their country’s stem cell registers. We are also promoting the use of alternative sources of stem cells and looking at ways to make them more accessible to everyone.

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

If a suitable adult donor cannot be found, your transplant team will discuss possible alternatives with you:

  • Cord blood transplant – where stem cells are collected from a mother’s umbilical cord soon after birth. More information about cord transplants.
  • Haploidentical transplant – this uses stem cells from a family member whose HLA is half matched to yours. More information about haploidentical transplants.

What if a donor isn't found straight away?

Your transplant co-ordinator will be updated on the progress of the search regularly. If there are any difficulties, they’ll let you know. Depending on your condition, you may need additional treatment to help control your symptoms during this time.

While waiting for a transplant some patients, their friends or families decide they’d like to help raise awareness by encouraging people to sign up to the Anthony Nolan register. You may want to consider launching a patient appeal to recruit potential donors too. 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 it’s very unlikely to 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. However, there are thousands of new potential donors added to registers around the world every day and 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?

At Anthony Nolan, we cannot accept requests to find a donor from individual patients or their families. If you live outside the UK, it’s still possible for us to search our registry but the request must come from your country’s own stem cell / bone marrow registry. Your hospital will be able to contact your country’s registry for you.  

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

Information published: 22/04/2021

Next review due: 22/04/2024