Baby umbilical cord blood is an excellent source for stem cells and the majority of birthing parents allow their umbilical and placental cord blood to be disposed of. The reason for this, most often, is an ignorance of available options, or the lack of funds for family bank storage. Regardless, there are a plethora of resources available to birthing parents that allow these valuable stem cells to be preserved.
What are stem cells? The Mayo clinic’s definition: “Stem cells are the raw material in the body that can generate other cells. In the lab, these cells divide to form daughter cells, which morph either into new stem cells or other specialized cells with specific functions, like brain or blood cells. This ability to create new cell types is specific to stem cells.”
What is cord blood? After a baby is born and the umbilical cord is cut, blood remains in the placenta and the portion of the umbilical cord that is attached to it. After birth, the baby no longer needs this extra blood. While cord blood contains all the important elements such as white and red blood cells, plasma, and platelets, it is also rich in blood-forming stem cells, similar to what is found in bone marrow.
Nearly all the stem cells used for treatment are hematopoietic stem cells (HSC), which are derived from human red bone marrow. HSCs give rise to all the other stem cells. Adult stem cells can also be found in fat. Umbilical cord blood became prized about 25 years ago when doctors realized baby cord blood was a rich source of HSCs. Studies are under way to compare the HSCs of bone marrow stem cells with that of umbilical cord blood.
Today, cord blood is often used in treating metabolic, blood and immune disorders, HIV, leukemia, lymphoma, and other cancers – it is used against more than 80 diseases in all and scientists are finding more uses all the time. Two recent studies in the journal, Stem Cell Reports, indicate that doctors are closer to being able to use stem cells to cure conditions like blindness, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, and Parkinson’s disease.
When a child is delivered, if the parents do not choose to preserve the umbilical cord or placenta for their own family, it is generally thrown away. The first transplants of this type were used on children with Fanconi anemia, and since then, use of cord blood has grown. Some states approach parents with a choice of whether to bank their child’s cord blood rather than the other way around. The National Institute of Health (NIH) supports the New York Blood Center’s Placental Blood program where a majority of their 13 thousand donations every year goes to children.
How much does cord blood banking cost? Donating a child’s cord blood to a public bank is free. To save cord blood for a family to use in the future, it must be collected and stored at a family cord blood bank. The costs for this kind of private banking include a gathering kit and a certain number of years of storage. There are monthly and yearly plans if the initial costs are more than a family has saved. Medical staff is generally very diligent in collection if they know the cord blood will be kept or donated, so it is a good idea to add this request to any birth plan that is created.
While the costs for storage at a family blood bank are steep, averaging $5,000 for the collection kit and 20 years of storage, the treatment costs for disorders like sickle-cell anemia or cancer are also expensive. For example, treating sickle-cell disease with stem cell therapy costs between $250,000-$500,000.
It does not affect the birth process to donate a baby’s cord blood. Parents must make the choice between the 28th and 34th week of pregnancy and sign up with an organization such as Be The Match or contacting a public cord blood bank. Donations are particularly needed from babies of non-Caucasian descent as patients from diverse ethnic backgrounds often have a more challenging time finding a suitable matched donor. In 2013, 34 percent of minority patients who received stem cell transplants used a baby’s cord blood. While 18 percent of transplant patients overall received cord blood from public cord blood bank, making them an excellent resource.
If a couple is interested in donating, they should consult with their doctor earlier in the pregnancy in order to learn whether they meet the donation guidelines and determine which hospitals in their area collect cord blood for a public cord blood bank. If the birthing hospital is listed, the birthing parent will need to contact that bank and gather information on collection procedures. In some cases, the patient can transport the collection kit themselves, but it must arrive at the blood bank within 48 hours. The most important part of collection is to inform the labor and delivery team at the hospital that cord blood needs to be saved.
What are the cord blood donation requirements? There are 17 conditions that must be met between the mother and the baby. The birth mother needs to begin the process between the week twenty-eight and thirty-two of her pregnancy and be expecting only one baby. There can be no blood relation between the baby’s parents. The fetus cannot have any abnormalities. If the mother has gotten any tattoos or skin piercings, including the ear, where non-sterile instruments or ink were used, she will not be eligible.
Other requirements for stem cell and baby blood cord donation include that the mother cannot have any blood diseases, or have not received a transfusion in the last twelve months. In addition, the mother cannot have used a needle to take a drug not prescribed by a physician, or had sex with someone who did. She cannot have been treated for syphilis, had malaria, any type of cancer, or been treated with chemotherapy. Whether the birthing parents choose to keep or donate their baby’s cord blood, this excellent source of stem cells is a valuable healing tool that could save many lives.
By Jenny Hansen