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  • Bone marrow transplants are now routinely carried out worldwide to treat people with life-threatening blood disorders, but back in the 1950s, bone marrow transplants could only be done when the donor and recipient were related.

    Bone marrow transplants are used worldwide and are a prime example of a successful stem cell therapy.

    Early 1900s

    Doctors make the first ever attempt to treat patients with a donor’s bone marrow. However, this treatment is unsuccessful, as the bone marrow is given by mouth.


    The first successful bone marrow transplant between a related donor and recipient is performed by Dr E Donnall Thomas in New York. The patient, who has leukaemia, is given radiotherapy and then treated with healthy bone marrow from an identical twin.


    French oncologist and immunologist Dr Georges Mathé performs a human bone marrow transplant using non-related bone marrow on six Yugoslav engineers who were irradiated at different levels after a nuclear reactor incident. Following the transplant, Mathé defined the ‘graft versus host’ disease in his patients and was the first to study the debilitating and wasting condition that follows transplantation. He deduced that this must be due to an immune reaction of the cells in the donor marrow against the cells in the human patient.


    French immunologist Dr Jean Dausset identifies human leukocyte antigens (HLA), which help the immune system to recognise what belongs in the body and what does not. HLA compatibility between a donor and recipient is necessary for transplants to be successful.


    Researchers discover bone marrow contains at least two kinds of stem cells – blood or haematopoietic stem cells that form all the types of blood cells in the body and stromal stem cells that form bone, cartilage, fat and connective tissue.


    First bone marrow transplant for non-cancer treatment. US immunologist Dr Robert Good uses a bone marrow transplant to treat an 8-year-old boy with severe combined immunodeficiency syndrome (SCID). The donor is an HLA-matched sister.


    First bone marrow transplant between unrelated patients. A 5-year-old patient in New York with SCID is treated with multiple infusions of bone marrow from a donor in Denmark.


    Dr Jean Dausset is one of three co-winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discovery of HLA and its role in immune reactions.


    The workdwide register of bone marrow donors – World Marrow Donor Association (WMDA) is established.


    The Nobel Prize is awarded to Americans Dr Joseph Murray and Dr E Donnall Thomas for their pioneering work in kidney and bone marrow transplantation, respectively.


    First xenotransplantation of bone marrow. Bone marrow and a kidney from a baboon are transplanted into a patient. The patient dies 26 days later from infection.


    A bone marrow xenotransplant is performed on patient Jeff Getty, who has acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Cells from a baboon are used because they are naturally resistant to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. The operation is not successful as the cells quickly disappear from Getty’s system. Jeff Getty continued to struggle with HIV for many years and died in 2006.


    The NZ Bone Marrow Donor Registry (NZBMDR) is established.


    The number of donors and cord blood units registered on the Bone Marrow Donors Worldwide (WMDA) database passes 11 million.


    World Marrow Donor Day (WMDD) is established, it is celebrated all over the world every 3rd Saturday of September.


    The New Zealand Bone Marrow Donor Registry (NZBMDR) lists approximately 13,000 potential donors who are willing to donate cells from their bone marrow to patients world wide. NZBMDR is part of the WMDA worldwide network of registries which contain over 29 million unrelated volunteer donors and cord blood units.

      Published 15 November 2007, Updated 10 October 2021 Referencing Hub articles
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