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Bone marrow contains stem cells that give rise to blood cells with various essential functions, from carrying oxygen (red blood cells) to providing immunity against disease (white blood cells). Bone marrow also contains stem cells that eventually become bone, cartilage, muscle and nerve tissue. These stem cells are continuously produced by the marrow and released into the bloodstream. They are also found in the placenta and in umbilical cord blood.
Because bone marrow produces so many types of important cells, preserving its function or correcting any defects in it are essential to maintaining health. Stem cell transplantation can be an effective treatment for patients with advanced or recurrent cancers of the blood, like leukemia and lymphoma. In these cases, high doses of chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy are needed to kill existing bone marrow, which is producing the cancerous cells.
In non-cancerous bone marrow disorders, such as Gaucher disease, aplastic anemia, myelodysplastic disorders or scleroderma, stem cell transplantation replaces abnormal marrow cells with normal stem cells.