FRIDAY, Oct. 7 (HealthDay News) -- A mother cuddling her newborn
baby may not know it, but the process that created a new life also
has given her the chance to save another.
Blood contained in the umbilical cord and placenta is a rich
source of stem cells that can be used to treat leukemia, lymphoma
and many other life-threatening diseases, according to the National
Marrow Donor Program.
However, many expectant mothers don't know that they can donate
cord blood after childbirth. Others don't donate because they are
concerned the process might be expensive or risk the health of
"Less than 5 percent of parents are storing their children's cord blood," said Frances Verter, founder and director of the Parent's Guide to Cord Blood Foundation. "That's just a tragedy because it's medically important and there is no danger to mother or child from donation."
Cord blood is considered valuable because it can be matched to
many more patients than bone marrow can be, said Mary Halet,
director of recruitment and community development for the National
Marrow Donor Program.
"The cells in the placenta and umbilical cord are very naive," Halet said. "They haven't been exposed to viruses or environmental pathogens so it hasn't formed any reactive abilities. It has the ability to live and grow in a not-perfectly-matched host."
Donation occurs after a baby has been delivered and the
umbilical cord is clamped, Verter explained. A doctor or nurse will
sterilize the cord, insert a needle and draw blood from it.
"You can get a few ounces of blood out of the cord," Verter said, which may not sound like much until you realize that those few ounces contain millions of stem cells. "Nothing else competes with cord blood in terms of getting millions of cells within a two-minute blood draw," she said.
Recent research has suggested that obstetricians might want to
wait a few minutes before clamping the cord and taking the sample,
as that last-minute flow of blood into the newborn could have
Cord blood donation advocates say that's fine, as long as
doctors don't wait too long to act.
"You can wait a minute or two," Verter said. "After that, the blood is just clotting in the cord. It's not going into the baby."
Once drawn, the cord blood is shipped promptly to a lab, where
it is processed to separate out the stem cells. The cells are
cryogenically stored at minus 192 degrees Celsius. "So this is not
something you can do with your kitchen freezer," Verter said.
Some debate has arisen over whether a mother should donate her
cord blood to a public bank or pay to privately bank it, just in
case there is an illness in her family.
The advantage to private banking is that cord blood works like
bone marrow, in that people who are related and therefore
genetically matched will receive more benefit from the stem
"It turns out that transplants from family members have a higher success rate than transplants from unrelated donors," Verter said. That suggests that a woman might want to consider privately banking the blood if her family has a history of illness, particularly blood-borne illnesses.
However, there are drawbacks. Banking cord blood is an expensive
proposition. Companies charge $1,000 to $2,000 for initial
processing, plus an annual storage fee of about $125, Verter
Also, if a family member is suffering from a blood-related
genetic defect, banking may not do them any good, Halet said. The
cord blood might carry the same genetic trait.
Donating to a public bank is free and makes the blood available
to anyone who might need it. "It's a very powerful gift," Halet
Banked cord blood keeps for a very long time. "There have been
children who have received a cord blood donation that was banked a
decade before they were diagnosed," Verter said.
The National Marrow Donor Program expects that by the year 2015
they will be matching up donors for 10,000 transplants a year,
Halet said. Though bone marrow donations will help some of those
patients, she said, stem cell donations from cord blood are much
more flexible and useful.
This is particularly true for ethnic minorities, both experts
said, because their likelihood of finding a direct genetic match
for a bone marrow transplant is lower. "It's easier to find a match
for cord blood than bone marrow," Verter said. "It does not have to
be matched as precisely."
The need for minority donations is increasing even more with the
rising number of mixed-race births, producing children with very
unique genetics. "We encourage women who are having children that
are mixed race or minority background to help further augment the
registry," Halet said.
In addition, doctors and scientists continue to uncover new ways
to use cord blood stem cells to help heal the sick.
"There's still a lot of promise with cord blood," Halet said. "I don't believe the real range of therapies that cord blood can offer has been elucidated yet."
Only about 200 hospitals in the United States have an active
donation program for cord blood, Verter said. However, if a mother
wishes to donate, she can tell hospital staff or contact the
National Marrow Donor Program to make arrangements.
"There are states that now have laws requiring parents to be informed of their options in cord blood banking," Verter said. "Cord blood saves lives, and it is very easy to donate."
The Paren'ts Guide to Cord Blood Foundation has more on
cord blood donations.
For more on how cord blood can save lives, read
one woman's story.
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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