Spring 2018

BMT: The original cell therapy

The world’s first successful bone marrow transplant from a matched, related donor was performed at the U 50 years ago, and the therapy is still saving lives

It’s an idea that’s reshaping medicine today: using cells, rather than chemicals, to eradicate disease. But it’s a familiar concept at the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota. 

In the 50 years since the world’s first successful bone marrow transplant from a matched, related donor was performed at the U, this cell therapy has paved the way for a new generation of treatments and provided hope to thousands of people facing otherwise incurable diseases. 

“Today we’ve not only come up with ways to make transplant safer but also new technologies that allow us to find donors for nearly everyone—achievements that we could have only dreamed of even 10 years ago,” says the U’s John E. Wagner Jr., M.D., an internationally recognized leader in the field, who holds the Children’s Cancer Research Fund/Hageboeck Family Endowed Chair in Pediatric Oncology and McKnight Presidential Chair in Childhood Cancer Research. 

University of Minnesota Health teams have performed more than 8,000 blood and marrow transplants over the last five decades. Today they run one of the largest unrelated-donor transplant programs in the country and the largest umbilical cord blood transplant center in the world. 

Click on the numbers below to learn how BMT works.



Step 1: Determining the transplant source. Blood-forming stem cells for a transplant can come from a donor’s bone marrow, a donor’s blood, umbilical cord blood (the blood left in a placenta after a baby is born), or even a patient’s own body.


Step 2: Conditioning. For about a week before the transplant, a patient receives high doses of chemotherapy, and sometimes radiation therapy, to both destroy the cancer or other disease-causing cells and prepare the body to receive the healthy cells. (RIDOFRANZ/ISTOCK IMAGES)


Step 3: Cell collection. A donor’s stem cells from blood or bone marrow are usually collected the day of the patient’s transplant, or donor stem cells from banked cryopreserved umbilical cord blood are prepared for use. Cells from a patient’s own body used for transplant are collected before conditioning begins and stored for later use. (YAKOBCHUK OLENA/THINKSTOCK IMAGES)


Step 4: Transplant. Healthy blood-forming stem cells are infused intravenously into the patient’s body, where they circulate for several hours before they home to the bone marrow.


Step 5: Engraftment. Over the following two to three weeks, the transplanted stem cells start to grow, making new blood and marrow, as well as a new immune system for life. It is this new immune system that attacks any residual diseased cells and eradicates the diseased bone marrow.

Conditions BMT can be used to treat

• Leukemia

• Lymphoma

• Multiple myeloma

• Aplastic anemia

• Fanconi anemia

• Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD)

• Hurler syndrome

• Hunter syndrome

• Severe combined immunodeficiency

• Sickle cell disease

• Thalassemia

Other conditions the U team is exploring for treatment with BMT

• Epidermolysis bullosa (in clinical trials)


• Autoimmune diseases such as scleroderma, multiple sclerosis, and inflammatory bowel diseases