This post was written by Katie Wilson, an Awareness Advocate for the Chord Blood Center.
What is cord blood banking?
Cord blood banking refers to the collection and storage of stem cells from a child’s umbilical cord. These adaptable cells treat a wide variety of diseases, and will automatically change into the type of cell most needed by the body.
Your two main storage options for cord blood are:
Donating your blood at a public bank – where it can be used for matching patients with a medical condition and clinical research
Storing cord blood with a private bank – where you will have your child’s stem cells available for any future treatment needs
Medical staff members usually collect cord blood right after birth, but can also wait several minutes if the parents want to participate in delayed cord clamping. The clamping is done just like a normal procedure and is completely painless for both the mother and her baby.
First, the cord is clamped and cut, just like a normal umbilical cord removal. The medical staff must be trained on proper cord blood collections – if they wait too long, the blood clots, and will not be useful for storage.
Then, the blood is extracted. A needle is placed into the cord, and gently pulls out remaining blood. This medical device is kept away from your baby, so the procedure is as safe as possible.
The process takes less than 10 minutes, and up to 5 ounces are collected.
The blood is then shipped out to the bank of your choice, where they test it. If the stem cells are usable, the bank cryogenically freezes the cord blood, so it remains useful decades from now.
Several banks offer cord tissue services, which will increase the amount of stem cells banked for your family – at an additional cost.
Cord blood is filled with stem cells – these cells greatly improve the body’s natural immune system, and increase healthy blood count. Cord blood cells, also called “units”, can adapt into many different types of cells.
Depending on the situation, a unit may repair vital organs and tissues, generate red and white blood cells and treat a wide variety of diseases. While the body has stem cells in other areas, like bone marrow, hair, tissue and muscles, most organs don’t contain enough cells for an effective transplant.
Cord blood units are often combined with existing treatments. For instance, doctors pair stem cells with chemotherapy to treat deadly conditions like leukemia and lymphoma. The chemotherapy destroys cancerous cells in the body, while a follow-up stem cell transplant generates new blood cells and boosts the immune system.
The biggest advantage of cord blood stem cells are their flexibility.
Unlike bone marrow, cord blood doesn’t require a perfect donor match and can fulfill many different purposes once transplanted. This means patients with a mixed ethnic background, who normally can’t find exact matches with a bone marrow transplant, have a viable option for treatment.
In 2012, 38% of Hispanic patients and 44% of African American stem cell patients needed a cord blood transplant – in the next several years, cord blood treatment will become the most popular regenerative therapy in the United States.
Currently, over 80 diseases are treatable using stem cells from cord blood, with more treatments emerging every year. The FDA has approved cord blood therapies for leukemia, aplastic anemia and other dangerous, life-changing diseases.
In addition to current treatments, clinical trials are looking at new therapies using cord blood. These include cerebral palsy, autism and type 1 diabetes. If current trials are successful, cord blood treatment may become a common practice within the next several years.
The future of cord blood
While cord blood – and the field of regenerative studies, in general – is still growing, many researchers and medical professionals are optimistic about the future of stem cell therapy.
Choosing to bank your child’s cord blood may save lives, as the number of stored cord blood units grow every year. In the United States, over 1 million units of cord blood are kept in family banks, and nearly 200,000 units are registered in public banks. Over 400,000 additional units are available through international organizations.
For expectant parents, the most important thing to remember are the options available to you – you can either donate your baby’s cord blood, which may help future patients and researchers, or save stem cells for your family’s safety.
While the decision is up to you, you only have one chance to save your child’s cord blood – right after birth.