This special blood, rich in stem cells, may have an important value to your family's health in the future. Read on to learn why cord blood banking is a smart move for many families.
Anne Lido, pregnant with her third child, sat in a hospital waiting room, passing time until the doctor called her in for an ultrasound. A brochure touting the benefits of cord blood banking caught her eye. "I'd never thought much about it, but the more I read, the more it made sense to give my baby the extra insurance." A few weeks later, Lido signed up with Cryo- Cell and banked her new son's cord blood when he was born. "Now I know that if my baby, or his older sister or brother, ever needs it, his cord blood will be there for them."
Like Lido, many parents are now providing their children with some extra security. "Umbilical cord blood represents a one-time opportunity to secure a potentially life-saving resource for a family," says Stephen Grant, co-founder and senior vice president of communications for Cord Blood Registry, in San Bruno, California. "We're now realizing that what was once considered garbage a few years ago, is a potentially life saving resource," says Grant.
What is cord blood?
The blood left in the umbilical cord after a baby is born, known as cord blood, contains immature cells called stem cells. These stem cells, similar to those found in bone marrow, are the master cells responsible for producing all of the mature cells in our blood and immune system. The beauty of stem cells is that they're basically naïve cells, meaning, they're able to divide and develop into any other type of cell, so they can actually correct or replace diseased or damaged cells.
"They can become a white cell that fights off infection, a red cell that carries oxygen, a platelet that promotes clotting," says Carol Kornmehl, M.D., medical director of radiation oncology at Passaic Beth Israel Regional Medical Center in Passaic, New Jersey. "Any tissue in the body derives from stem cells," she says.
How do stem cells work?
In healthy people, stem cells replenish other cells in the blood and immune system. If the stem cells are damaged, either by a blood disorder (like leukemia) or a medical treatment (like chemotherapy), stem cells need to be replaced. “When a person can’t make his own blood, the stem cells can repopulate the bone marrow and regenerate what the body needs in order to survive,” says Dr. Kornmehl.
In 1988, doctors performed the first cord blood transplant on a six-year-old boy with Fanconi anemia, a blood disorder that leads to bone marrow failure. The transplant successfully replaced the boy’s diseased blood cells with healthy cells from his newborn sister. Since then, stem cells have been used to treat almost 90 different diseases including leukemia, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, genetic disorders, and other illnesses.
What are the advantages of banking cord blood?
Stem cell transplants require a less precise tissue match than do bone marrow transplants, so your baby’s stored blood may be a suitable match for members of your family. And unlike bone marrow transplants, using cord blood doesn’t require locating a possible volunteer donor and then determining whether he or she is still willing and able to donate. Cord blood is stored frozen, ready to use.
Cord blood is very important for some populations, particularly Hispanics, African-Americans, and people of mixed ethnic backgrounds, because suitable bone marrow matches are scarce. Cord blood also poses fewer risks of complications to the recipient. Because the cells are so new, umbilical cord cells are less likely to attack the patient’s own tissue, a condition called graft vs. host disease, a major complication of bone marrow transplants. “Scientists don’t know exactly why, but the theory is that cord blood cells haven’t yet developed the strong characteristics of that person’s makeup, so they’re less likely to attack the tissues of the recipient,” says Marcia Laleman, president and CEO of CorCell, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Cord blood is also less likely to transmit certain viruses, like cytomegalovirus (CMV), a potentially lethal infection for transplant recipients. About half of all adults in the U.S. population carry the latent CMV virus, whereas less than one percent of infants are born with CMV.
What does the future hold?
So far, most cord blood transplants have been done to treat diseases of the blood and immune system. But scientists are working in labs, investigating the possibility that stem cells in cord blood may be able to replace the cells of other tissues. “They could re-grow heart tissue after a heart attack or brain tissue after a brain injury,” says Grant. Cord blood has the potential to treat strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, HIV and AIDSrelated illnesses, and other disorders. “The question is not, ‘What are the odds that my child is going to get leukemia?’ It’s, ‘What are the chances that someone in my family will need the cord blood in the future?’” says Grant.
The Nuts And Bolts Of Banking
Storing your baby’s cord blood is absolutely risk-free. The process is simple, and there’s no pain for either you or your baby. After delivery, your health care provider will clamp the umbilical cord. The blood remaining in the placenta and umbilical cord (usually about three to five fluid ounces) will be collected using a kit provided by the bank. Then the blood is sent to a cord blood bank where it’s processed, tested for signs of infection, and stored—frozen—in bags or vials. One study found that cord blood stored for 15 years has shown no significant loss of cell viability “In other words, after 15 years cord blood still works as well as if it had been collected today,” says CorCell’s Laleman. Better yet, researchers say it may last indefinitely.
The cost varies: The initial collection and processing fees range from about $1,500 to $2,000, and then annual storage fees average about $100 per year for 18 years. “I felt that this was an investment worth making,” says Lido.