Banking Your Baby’s Stem Cells: Is cord blood worth it?
Cord blood contains stem cells that can grow into any differentiated kind of cells, such as organs, tissues and blood vessels and is found in your baby’s umbilical cord immediately after birth and can be stored for future use. While still under several FDA-regulated trials, cord blood is thought to be suitable for use in treatment of severe disabilities and diseases such as brain injuries, autism and more. These powerful stem cells can be drawn into a collection bag once the umbilical cord has been clamped and cut.
Umbilical cord blood can be removed from the cord at birth and then stored in private or public blood banks for later use. Private blood banks can be expensive, but they guarantee that your child’s cord blood will be available when you need it. Public blood banks are generally free or low-cost, but they are just that–public–so there is always the possibility that someone with a similar genetic makeup may need the cord blood you stored, and they would receive it. While this chance is very minimal, some parents choose not to take the chance and go with a private blood bank where they have complete control over the use of the stored cord blood cells. Cord blood banks refer to banking as a type of “insurance” since the blood is essentially stored, healthy version of potentially life-saving cells that might have been thrown away at birth otherwise.
What makes cord blood cells different?
These specialized cells, when saved, have unique qualities and advantages–a lowered risk of transplant complications, “autologous transplantation”, meaning the ability to use your own stem cells for conditions that lack viable treatment options, and they can also minimize disease progression if caught in the early stages for treatment. Diseases as diverse as cancer, blood diseases, genetic disorders and immune disorders can be treated using cord blood cells, and thanks to advancements in research, these life-saving cells have made cord blood collection one of the fastest growing sources of stem cells for use in pediatric transplants.
Stem cells are the basic building blocks of life, found in the tissues, immune system, blood and organs of the body. The remarkable ability to reconstruct themselves when transplanted into a patient’s body makes them invaluable in all types of medical treatments. They can improve a patient’s health or even save their life by replacing damaged or diseased cells.
How cord blood cells are collected and stored
While there is a bit of controversy over whether or not to wait 30 to 60 seconds after clamping the cord before cutting it, gathering cord blood is relatively straightforward and simply involves collecting the blood from the delivered placenta, causing no risk to the mother or the baby. Nor does the collection process interfere with the post-delivery care of either the mother or child. Collection is a very passive action taken by the medical team after delivery.
Before the cord blood is frozen and banked, it is tested and stored frozen within just a few days. If stored in a public bank, the cord blood would be available within approximately 5 days for use, requiring just a few days for any HLA typing or additional special testing.
Since cord blood must be collected immediately after birth, cord blood and tissue banks recommend that you register in your second or third trimester and be sure to bring your collection kit to the hospital with you, “just in case”. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to collect these genetically unique cells will not be repeated, so you want to be prepared if something out of the ordinary happens during your delivery.
Why save cord blood
Sufferers of certain types of diseases such as leukemia, sickle cell anemia, lymphoma and others can be injected with types of cells called hematopoietic progenitor cells (HPCs)–immature cells that have the potency to turn into other types of cells and can also reproduce themselves. By injecting these cells, doctors hope to replenish the diseased blood and cells with a new, healthy blood supply, a treatment that can even help individuals recover from certain types of radiation or chemotherapy. Another way to gain access to HPCs is through a bone marrow transplant–a significantly more invasive, expensive and painful therapy than a blood infusion from cord stem cells.
Stem cells from cord blood are thought to have several advantages over those found in bone marrow, especially when the bone marrow is from someone who is over the age of maturity. Some cord blood benefits are that they are considered more flexible and less likely to be rejected than those found in bone marrow of adults. While in most cases, physicians don’t necessarily recommend it as important, banking cord blood is recommended when your family history has instances of diseases such as sickle cell anemia, leukemia or other blood disorders or if you already have one sick child that could potentially use the transplant.
There are over 80 life-threatening diseases that cord blood and cord tissues are currently considered potential treatment or use for, with treatment for injuries such as spinal cord injury, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, diabetes and stroke also being considered as potential avenues that cord blood and tissues could treat in the future. While the cells are genetically unique to the child, they can potentially be a closer match than an organ donation match, and invite fewer challenges since the cells are so incredibly versatile due to their youth.
Cord blood cells collected from one child have a very strong likelihood of benefiting other children you have as well–with as much as a 25% rate of perfect match and a 50% chance of being a partial match among full siblings. Parents or grandparents may also benefit from this life-saving gift. Your treatment physician will need to make a determination on whether or not the cord blood will not only be a match, but will also be of benefit to the condition. The gathered and stored cord blood cells will always be a perfect match for the child that they were collected from. Biological parents will also always be at least a partial match.
On top of their potential for treating life-ending diseases, stem cells from umbilical cord blood and tissue are also a great option for regenerative treatments for cornea, liver, skin, bone and cartilage cells.
To bank or not to bank
With all the potential upsides, the decision whether or not to bank cord blood is still a very personal one for each family. Of the hundreds of thousands of medical issues that humans can contract or encounter in life, less than 100 are known to be successfully treated with stem cells gathered from cord blood and tissues. While it could be considered a type of health insurance policy for not only your baby but for the rest of your family, the chances that you will actually use the blood are around 0.07%, and the chance that it will be useful for others in your family is around 0.04%–meaning that a great deal of expense, sometimes thousands of dollars over a lifetime–could be spent only to throw away the cord blood at some point in the future.
Alternatively, having your cord blood stored in a public bank provides a much greater potential that you or someone you know and love will be able to utilize this gift of life. Since a perfect match is not required, there’s a much better chance of someone being able to utilize the cord blood to make a positive difference in their lives. There’s also the potential that the cord blood could be contaminated, or be riddled with the same disease that the individual already has, making it virtually useless as a treatment tool. In general, cord blood is most effective in treating diseases in children, mostly because the small amount of blood extracted from the cord of between 3-5 ounces just isn’t enough to treat a full-grown adult.
While it is highly unlikely that you will ever need to utilize your baby’s stored cord blood stem cells, most doctors don’t discourage the practice even if they don’t outright support it. Some parents feel that the overwhelming cost to use the services of a privately-owned bank to store their baby’s cord blood is well worth the peace of mind. Parents need to be able to make an informed decision, but experts admit that advertising for cord blood banks can be emotional and misleading. If you as a parent, feel that maintaining access to your baby’s stem cells would give you peace of mind, then it’s a good idea to speak with your physician to get a recommendation for a good and reputable cord blood bank.
There’s certainly no difficulty in the procedure, and as medical advances continue, there may be even more unexpected positives for banking your precious baby’s cord blood and tissues. The deciding factor may be your family’s medical history. If there are blood diseases or physical concerns even back a generation, taking the time and effort to bank your baby’s cord blood may save expensive and exhaustive medical treatments.