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Proponents of cord blood banking are convinced that instead of being medical waste, the fetal cells within are biological gold. In this post, and the two that follow, I’ll take a look at the evidence for those claims, and sort through some of the questions that arise as parents consider whether to bank their baby’s cord blood.
In the past years, there have been dramatic medical advances in the arena of stem cell research, and more discoveries are announced practically every month. Many doctors and researchers see great potential in the use of stem cells to reverse or cure many severe, life-threatening diseases. With these facts in mind, many parents are choosing to preserve the stems cells found in umbilical cord blood after birth. There are no health risks in doing so. The primary risk is that the $100 yearly fee for storage will be wasted in the event that the stem cells are never needed.
Harvesting and banking cord blood is a fairly simple procedure that can be performed during vaginal or cesarian deliveries without interrupting the birth process. The doctor or nurse will collect the cord blood after the umbilical cord has been clamped. The collection of cord blood is not painful, intrusive or risky to the mother or baby.
With public cord blood banks, there’s a greater chance that your cord blood will be put to use because it could be given to any child or adult in need, says William T. Shearer, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Pediatrics and Immunology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Cord blood is donated and is put on a national registry, to be made available for any transplant patient. So if your child should need the cord blood later in life, there’s no guarantee you would be able to get it back.
Umbilical cord blood stem cells are different from other kinds of cells in a couple of different ways. The first is that umbilical cord blood stem cells are unspecialized cells, which have the ability to renew themselves by cell division, even after significant time has elapsed since they were frozen. The second reason is that in certain situations, and under exacting conditions, the umbilical cord stem cells can become tissue- or organ-specific cells, allowing regeneration of those tissues.
All cord blood is screened and tested. Whether you use a public or private bank, you’ll still need to be tested for various infections (such as hepatitis and HIV). If tests come back positive for disease or infection, you will not be able to store your cord blood.
Another advantage of using umbilical cord blood stem cells is the decreased risk of the transmission of infectious disease. This particular advantage is partly because umbilical cord blood is almost never contaminated by Epstein-Barr virus or cytomegalovirus (Drew, 2005; Gonzalez-Ryan et al., 2000). Additionally, the processing of cord blood includes collecting data on the history of infection during the mother’s pregnancy. For example, if the pregnant woman has a history of group B streptococcus, active genital herpes, or prolonged rupture of membranes and chorioamnionitis, umbilical cord blood is not saved. Generally, samples of the mother’s blood are also drawn to test for infectious diseases, such as hepatitis, human immunodeficiency virus, and syphilis (Moise, 2005). Furthermore, after the cord blood units are collected, they are screened for disease, and any units that are deemed contaminated or infected are thrown away (Gunning, 2007).
In a number of genetic, hematologic, immunologic, metabolic, and oncologic disorders, reconstitution of bone marrow (transplantation) can be a potentially life-saving procedure.1–16 Allogeneic (related or unrelated) or autologous (self) bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells are the usual sources of hematopoietic progenitor cells to achieve this goal. If autologous stem cells are not available or cannot be used, the best option for successful reconstitution therapy is to secure stem cells from an HLA-matched sibling.1,3,11 Close matching confers a higher probability of successful engraftment and minimizes the risk of potentially fatal graft-versus-host disease. Unfortunately, there is only a 25% chance for identifying a full HLA match in a sibling donor.17,18
A typical cord blood collection only contains enough stem cells to transplant a large child or small adult. This website has a page explaining the optimum transplant dose. At one time it was believed that cell dose limitations restricted the use of cord blood transplants to children. In recent years growing numbers of adults are also receiving cord blood transplants, either by growing the cells in a lab prior to transplant or by transplanting more than one cord blood unit at a time. More information about these trials is available on the web page about Research on Cord Blood Transplants.
For families that choose to bank cord blood, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends public cord blood banking. Estimates vary, but the chances of a child having a stem cell transplant, with either bone marrow or cord blood, are 1 in 217 over a lifetime. Although the AAP states cord blood has been used to treat certain diseases successfully, there isn’t strong evidence to support cord blood banking. If a family does decide on cord blood banking, the AAP recommends public cord blood banking (instead of private) to cut down on costs. If you donate cord blood and your child eventually needs it, you can get it back as long as it hasn’t been discarded or used.
You need to plan ahead if you decide to store cord blood. Banks need to be notified four to six weeks before your due date if you’re interested in donating blood. Once you do decide on a public bank, those affiliated with the Be the Match registry (bethematch.org/cord) will cover the costs of collecting, processing, and storing cord blood units.
Wagner JE, Rosenthal J, Sweetman R, et al. Successful transplantation of HLA-matched and HLA-mismatched umbilical cord blood from unrelated donors: analysis of engraftment and acute graft-versus-host disease. Blood.1996;88 :795– 802
Cade Hildreth is the Founder of BioInformant.com, the world’s largest publisher of stem cell industry news. Cade is a media expert on stem cells, recently interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Business Journal, Xconomy, and Vogue Magazine.
Preserving stem cells does not guarantee that the saved stem cells will be applicable for every situation. Ultimate use will be determined by a physician. Please note: Americord Registry’s activities are limited to collection of umbilical cord tissue from autologous donors. Americord Registry’s possession of a New York State license for such collection does not indicate approval or endorsement of possible future uses or future suitability of cells derived from umbilical cord tissue.
Gluckman E, Broxmeyer HA, Auerbach AD, et al. Hematopoietic reconstitution in a patient with Fanconi’s anemia by means of umbilical-cord blood from an HLA-identical sibling. N Engl J Med.1989;321 :1174– 1178
Bunin N, Aplenc R, Iannone R, et al. Unrelated donor bone marrow transplantation for children with severe aplastic anemia: minimal GVHD and durable engraftment with partial T cell depletion. Bone Marrow Transplant.2005;35 :369– 373
Korthof ET, Snijder PP, de Graaff AA, et al. Allogeneic bone marrow transplantation for juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia: a single center experience of 23 patients. Bone Marrow Transplant.2005;35 :455– 461
Your child may never need it. Stem cell-rich cord blood can be used to treat a range of diseases, but Frances Verter, Ph.D., founder and director of Parent’s Guide to Cord Blood Foundation, estimates that there’s only a 1 in 217 chance that your child will ever need a stem cell transplant with cord blood (or bone marrow). This is particularly true if the child doesn’t have a family history of diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma, or sickle cell anemia. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states cord blood has been used to treat certain diseases successfully, there isn’t strong evidence to support cord blood banking. If a family does choose to bank cord blood, the AAP recommends public cord blood banking (instead of private) to cut down on expenditures.
Myers LA, Hershfield MS, Neale WT, Escolar M, Kurtzberg J. Purine nucleoside phosphorylase deficiency (PNP-def) presenting with lymphopenia and developmental delay: successful correction with umbilical cord blood transplantation. J Pediatr.2004;145 :710– 712
Research on stem cell transplants began in the 1950s, with successful bone marrow transplants occurring in the 1970s, often to treat cancer patients whose own bone marrow was destroyed by chemotherapy and radiation. The first successful umbilical cord blood stem cell transplant was reported as occurring in the late 1980s. The recipient was a 6-year-old American boy from North Carolina who was treated for Fanconi’s anemia (a genetic disorder) at Hospital St. Louis in Paris, France, using cord blood obtained from his younger sister’s birth. Interestingly, more than 20 years after the transplant, this young man is alive and well. Not only did he survive long term, but both his immune system and his blood were transformed by the transplant of his sister’s cord blood stem cells. Soon after this first documented cord blood stem cell transplant, the first public umbilical cord blood bank was established in 1991 in New York (McGuckin & Forraz, 2008).
Specializing in health and medicine, Sandra Gordon has written extensively about cord blood banking for national and regional parenting magazines. She also has written about baby products, including breast pumps, for national and regional parenting magazines, blogs and books. Her work has appeared in hundreds of publications, including Parents, Prevention, Woman’s Day and Self. Gordon also appears on TV as a baby safety and money-saving expert. She is also the author of 10 books and the founder of babyproductsmom.com, a site dedicated to helping new parents gear up safely and within their budget.
After injections with their own umbilical cord blood, 63 children with cerebral palsy improved on motor skills, on average. And a clinical trial to see whether cord blood transplants improve symptoms of children with autism spectrum disorder should wrap up in the summer of 2018, says pediatric researcher and clinician Joanne Kurtzberg of Duke University, who helped establish a not-for-profit umbilical cord bank in North Carolina. (A small but optimistic pilot study has already been completed.)
Fox N. S., Stevens C., Cuibotariu R., Rubinstein P., McCullough L. B., & Chervenak F. A. (2007). Umbilical cord blood collection: Do patients really understand? Journal of Perinatal Medicine, 35, 314–321 [PubMed]
Cord blood banking can be complex & difficult to research. To help consumers get started, our editors have spent over 200 hours reviewing the best cord blood registries & making this year’s selections of best all-around providers.