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House Call: Umbilical cord blood may be worth banking

Dr. Alisa Hideg

Stem cells are amazing. They have the ability to become any other cell. Adults have a few of these cells, but newborns have many. These stem cells can be harvested from the blood in an infant’s umbilical cord, from the umbilical cord itself, and from the placenta. Stem cells have been the focus of a lot of research, and most of that research has been done on stem cells from umbilical cord blood.

If you are pregnant, you may have heard about freezing your child’s umbilical cord blood after birth. Some parents choose to do this as a form of family health insurance. That’s because stem cells from umbilical cord blood can be used to treat 80 conditions (a big leap from 1998 when they were used for only one). This includes 10 kinds of cancer, mostly leukemias and lymphomas; 16 kinds of bone marrow failure syndrome; 8 blood disorders; 17 metabolic disorders; 19 types of immunodeficiency; and four other conditions. More therapeutic possibilities are on the horizon. Be aware, though, that treatment does not always work.

Currently, the stem cells from umbilical cord blood are used to treat the donor child in around 40 percent of cases and a sibling of the donor in about 60 percent of cases. Who the cord blood stem cells can be used to treat depends largely on the condition being treated.

Friends of mine had the cord blood from both of their daughters frozen when each girl was born. They hope that medical advances might someday allow these stem cells to be used to treat their father’s Type 1 diabetes or either of the daughters’ should one of them develop this disease, which often runs in families.

If you decide you want to bank your baby’s umbilical cord blood or other tissue, make arrangements well ahead of your delivery date. You will most likely need to make arrangements yourself with a service that allows you to bank the cord, cord blood and/or placenta tissue. You will need to have paperwork completed and signed before delivery and the doctor and medical staff attending your delivery should be alerted that you intend to have the umbilical cord blood collected. You should check with your health care plan to see if collection and/or storage are covered.

Then, here’s what will happen. After delivery when the umbilical cord has been clamped and cut, the blood is drawn from the cord and placenta, preserved and frozen. The collection procedure is essentially the same with a cesarean section delivery. The process of collecting the blood does not alter the care you or your baby get at delivery.

You can also donate cord blood and other tissue for research (the process and paperwork are the same).

There is much research being done with these stem cells to develop treatments for conditions like autism, cerebral palsy and brain injury. Also, research is being done with stem cells from umbilical cord tissue – which seems to work differently than stem cells from cord blood – to treat injuries and diseases that affect cartilage, muscle cells and nerve cells. Some of the conditions that are being investigated to see if they respond positively to umbilical cord stem cells include liver fibrosis, lung cancer, Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, cartilage injuries and Type 1 diabetes.

Although umbilical cord blood banking can be expensive if your insurance does not cover it, it could turn out to be lifesaving for a member of your family, or your donation could help with groundbreaking research that saves someone else’s life. It’s something that you might feel makes it worth the expense in the long run.

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