As soon as she found out she was pregnant, Blythe Stanford knew she wanted to save her baby's umbilical cord blood—not only for her unborn child, but mainly for her husband, David. "He's partially blind due to diabetes," says Stanford, 34. "I saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have access to stem cells that may one day help him."
Cord blood is rich in hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells, both of which can replace diseased blood cells with healthy blood-forming ones. Since the first transplant in 1988, cord-blood cells have been used to cure leukemia, lymphoma and inherited immune and metabolic disorders in more than 5,500 children. In only a handful of cases have children been treated with their own cord-blood cells, and so recently that long-term results are unknown.
But that's not what has Stanford and researchers like Peter Weiss, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of obstetrics at the University of California, Los Angeles, so excited; rather, it's the potential of other types of cord-blood cells to combat more common health foes—everything from heart disease and diabetes to spinal cord injuries and Alzheimer's disease. "Cord-blood cells are so 'naive,' the hope is that they can be coaxed into becoming not only new blood cells but also new muscle or nerve cells," says Weiss. "It's already happening in laboratories."
Weighing the pros and cons
At an initial cost of between $1,420 and $1,800, plus a $100 to $200 annual storage fee, whether to store cord blood without definitive proof of its broader uses can be a tough call for parents.
Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a statement describing private banking of a baby's cord blood for his future use as "biological insurance," since the likelihood that a child will ever need his own cord blood ranges from 1 in 1,000 to more than 1 in 200,000. Unless an older sibling has an illness that may be helped by a new baby's cord blood, the AAP encourages public banking instead (visit marrow.org and click on "How to Help").
In addition, preliminary research indicates there may be DNA mutations in cord blood obtained from children who later develop diseases, rendering the blood unusable, though this is still a gray area.
"Parents should not be made to feel guilty if they are not eager or able to invest in such a highly speculative venture," the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states.
Nevertheless, knowing that potentially lifesaving cells are available should a child or close family member need treatment may provide peace of mind. Since the first cord-blood transplant in 1988, the procedure has been used worldwide to treat more than 70 diseases (for a list, go to nationalcordbloodprogram.org/patients/ncbp_diseases.htm).
The one-year survival rate ranges from 40 percent to 80 percent after a transplant from an unrelated donor. However, "people who receive donations from relatives have about twice the survival rate," Weiss says. Research shows a survival rate as high as 75 percent to 90 percent after a transplant from a sibling.
While adult bone marrow can also be a source of hematopoietic stem cells, cord blood is an attractive alternative because it's immediately available and its cells are less likely to be rejected by the body, according to research.
Plus, it's easy to collect—once the umbilical cord is clamped and cut, the doctor uses a needle to drain the blood into a collection bag. Typically, a courier picks up the blood from the hospital and ships it to a facility to be analyzed and cryopreserved, or frozen. While exactly how long stored cord blood will remain viable is unknown, so far, recovery has been successful after up to 10 years.
Support for research grows
In December 2005, the U.S. Congress passed a law to establish a National Cord Blood Inventory for transplants and research. The goal is to build up 150,000 publicly available units of cord blood; donations from minorities, who typically have the hardest time finding a match among adult bone marrow donors, are especially encouraged.
There are roughly 26 accredited cord-blood banks in the U.S., including public and private. If you choose private banking, experts recommend selecting a company that's been in business for several years and is financially stable.
Like the thousands of other parents who privately bank their baby's cord blood, Blythe Stanford and her husband know the cells they stored may never be used. "But that's a gamble I'm happy to take," she says.
— Kim Acosta for Fit Pregnancy. Read more great articles at FitPregnancy.com.