The Gift of Life, Umbilical Cord Blood

This month you will read about umbilical cord blood banking and the pros and cons surrounding the process considering the fact that July is National Cord Blood Awareness Month. Patient education campaigns have been launched by the American Association of Pediatrics, he National Marrow Donor Program, and other national organizations.

If you are a soon-to-be parent, you are also probably familiar with ads and brochures that inform you how baby’s umbilical cord blood could give hope to a patient with a blood disorder or that invite you to bank your baby’s umbilical cord blood as a form of insurance for future medical needs. Despite these campaigns, many parents have questions and remain confused about the entire process.

The placenta and developing fetus are connected by a tube called the umbilical cord. The baby’s placenta along with the umbilical cord is spontaneously expelled out of the mother’s body by the uterus after a child is born. The placenta and umbilical cord are typically discarded after the cord has been cut to detach it from the new born baby.

Stem cells, which are “mother” cells that can develop into the majority of the components that make up platelets, white blood cells, and red blood cells, are found in abundance in the blood inside the umbilical cord. Like those previously obtained from bone marrow, these stem cells are similar.

Another new source for these precious life saving cells can now be umbilical cord blood that has been harvested and preserved. Unlike embryonic stem cells, there are no controversial implications to harvesting umbilical cord blood. The destruction of embryos, or the practice of cloning, is not associated with cord blood stem cells.

The use of stored umbilical cord blood has been exclusively limited for use in stem cell transplants. Frequently used for the treatment of a variety of serious illnesses such as some types of bone marrow failure, cancer, lymphomas, immune deficiency, leukemias, and anemias, stem cell transplants are also known as bone marrow transplants. In order to determine if the stem cells can be utilized to treat other types of illness, intense research is currently being conducted around the world.

Patients are most likely to match someone of their same race and ethnicity because tissue type is inherited. This is according to the National Donor Marrow Program. Thus, Hispanic or Latino donors, American Indian or Alaskan Native, Black or African American, Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and Asian donors are all in high demand.

In the United States, the number of umbilical cord blood banks, both public and private, are limited. More banks are currently in the planning stages so the numbers are expected to rise in the near future.

There are two types of cord blood banks, private and public, and each has their advantages and disadvantages.

Privately stored cord blood ensures that the blood will be reserved for your family’s use if it would ever be needed in the future, however, other individuals who could possibly benefit from the cord blood stem cells would not have access to it.

Using umbilical cord stem cells, public cord blood banks further research into medical treatments. Transplants for non-relatives are also possible with public banks since they make donated cord blood stem cells available for transplant to anyone in need.

Donated cord blood stored in a public facility is no longer the property of the donor, and cannot be reserved for your baby or family’s use in the future. The public banks serve those patients who do not have an adult unrelated donor or matching family member.

At the Southwest Cancer Center at Texas Tech, six cord blood stem cell transplants saved the lives of six patients just over the past year. Delivered mothers who had babies from different locations around the country, the cord blood units were all donated.

No risk to the mother or baby is associated with the medically safe practice of donating umbilical cord blood. The option is a personal one, and just like any other medical procedure, a decision should be made after consultation and due consideration. But the choice to save, donate, or discard umbilical cord blood will soon be available to all new and expecting parents.

Take the first step towards the healthier life you deserve.