What are stem cells?

Stem cells, specifically blood stem cells, are immature cells that can develop into any cell present in the bloodstream: 

  • Red blood cells - cells that carry oxygen  
  • White blood cells – cells that fight infection  
  • Platelets – cells that help control bleeding. 

Blood stem cells are not embryonic stem cells. They come from bone marrow, circulating (peripheral) blood or umbilical cord blood. People with diseases or disorders that inhibit their ability to produce these kinds of cells need a transplant of healthy stem cells from a donor. 

Myths about stem cell donation

Listed below are some of the most commonly dispelled myths about stem cell donation. If you still have questions, please call us at 1 888 2 DONATE (1-888-236-6283) to speak with one of our trained healthcare professionals. 

Myth: Stem cells are taken from the spinal cord.

Fact: The donor's spinal cord is unaffected in the collection of stem cells. For a bone marrow donation, the collection of the stem cells is taken from the iliac crest which sits at the back of the pelvic bone. This is a day-procedure that takes place under general anaesthesia. 

Myth: All stem cell donations involve surgery.

Fact: Some donations involve surgery, and some do not. We ask donors to donate stem cells from their peripheral blood, bone marrow or cord blood. Where bone marrow donation is a surgical procedure, peripheral blood is a non-surgical procedure done in an outpatient clinic. 

Peripheral blood stem cell donation involves removing a donor's blood through a sterile needle in one arm. The blood is passed through a machine that separates out the stem cells used in transplantation. The remaining blood is returned through the other arm. 

Cord blood is the least invasive method of donating stem cells requiring no surgery or the withdrawal of blood intravenously. A needle is inserted to draw out the rich and immature blood stem cells which are processed, frozen and stored for transplantation to a matched patient.  

The patient's doctor will decide what type of donation is best for the patient. 

Myth: Stem cell donation is painful.

Fact: We facilitate stem cell donation from bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cell donation and collect cord blood at four locations across Canada:  

  • Ottawa – at the Ottawa Hospital (General campus) 
  • Brampton (Greater Toronto Area) - at the William Osler Health System’s Brampton Civic Hospital 
  • Edmonton – at the Alberta Health Services’ Lois Hole Hospital for Women 
  • Vancouver – at the BC Women’s Hospital and Health Centre.  

For bone marrow donation, the collection of stem cells is taken from the iliac crest and this type of procedure is done under general anaesthetic so the donor experiences no pain. For peripheral blood stem cell donation, the collection is a non-surgical procedure done in an outpatient clinic and does not involve anaesthetic. The donor does not experience pain during either procedure. Cord blood is donated after the safe delivery of the baby and umbilical cord. Aside from the relative experience of giving birth to child, the donor does not experience pain donating cord blood. Cord blood that is not donated or stored becomes medical waste. 

Myth: Stem cell donation involves a lengthy recovery process.

Fact: Bone marrow donors can expect to feel some soreness in their lower back. There have also been reports of donors feeling tired and having some discomfort walking for a couple of days or longer. Most donors are back to their usual routine in a few days. Some may take a few weeks before they feel completely recovered. 

Peripheral blood stem cell donors report varying symptoms including headache, bone or muscle pain, nausea, insomnia and fatigue. These effects disappear shortly after donating. 

Myth: If I donate stem cells, they cannot be replaced.

Fact: The body replaces the stem cells within six weeks. After donating, most donors are back to their usual routine in a few days. 

Myth: I come from a large family, so if I ever need a stem cell transplant, I should have no problem finding a match within my family.

Fact: The requirements for finding a match are so precise that fewer than 25 per cent of those in need find a match within their own family. That is why we strongly encourage individuals to register to become part of a national stem cell and marrow network - a network of Canadians who are ready to donate to any patient in need – or register to donate cord blood.