by Rallie McAllister, MD, MPH
Couples expecting a new baby face dozens of important decisions and a seemingly endless to-do list. Expectant parents will choose an obstetrician or a midwife, a birthing center, and a car seat for their child. They'll spend hours haggling over baby names, preparing the nursery, shopping for baby clothes, and stocking up on diapers and other newborn essentials.
One of the most critical decisions that new parents face is whether to collect and save their baby's umbilical cord blood. They'll only have one opportunity to do it: in the moments following their baby's birth.
Umbilical cord blood is a rich source of stem cells, considered to be the master cells of the body. For more than two decades, cord blood stem cells have been used in transplant medicine to treat a wide variety of serious diseases, including leukemia and other cancers and blood disorders.
Scientists at leading universities and hospitals in the United States are exploring a growing list of potential uses for cord blood stem cells. One of the most promising areas of stem cell research is regenerative medicine, in which an individual’s own stem cells are used to repair damaged or diseased tissues and organs.
Clinical trials are underway to evaluate the benefits of using a child’s cord blood stem cells in the treatment of type 1 diabetes, hearing loss, cerebral palsy, and other brain injuries.
"Cord blood stem cells are not the same as embryonic stem cells, which are taken from human embryos and are very controversial," said obstetrician-gynecologist Marra Francis, MD, of West Hills, Texas. 'When cord blood cells are used to treat an illness, they’re simply administered to the individual intravenously, like a blood transfusion."
Once in the body, stems cells can trigger natural repair processes by reducing inflammation and increasing blood flow to injured or diseased areas. They also can stimulate the growth of new blood vessels and other tissues.
"Parents have a right to be informed about cord blood banking, so they can make the best decision for their child and their family," said Gina Dado, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Phoenix, Arizona, who routinely discusses the topic with her pregnant patients and their partners. "Twenty-four states now have legislation requiring doctors and hospitals to educate expectant parents about cord blood banking."
When deciding the fate of their babies' cord blood, parents have three options. They may donate it to a public bank, store it in a private banking facility, or allow it to be discarded as medical waste.
Donation to public banks might be free, but the cord blood is not reserved for the exclusive use of the child or the family that provided it. Parents who want to ensure that their baby’s cord blood will be available for their family's use can choose to store it with a private cord-blood bank.
According to Dr. Dado, "There's a 75 percent chance of a baby's cord blood being a match for a sibling or another family member."
For storage at private cord-blood banks, the initial collection and processing may cost more than $2,000, with annual storage fees of around $125. In many cases, interest-free payment plans and gift registries are available.
"For parents who elect to store their baby’s cord blood, the procedure is simple, painless and perfectly safe," said Dr. Francis. "It takes less than five minutes."
After the baby's birth, the umbilical cord is clamped and cut in the usual manner. The end of the cord attached to the placenta is the source of cord blood and the valuable stem cells it contains.