by Robert A. Gehring
Sparrow Morris, from Pineville, MO, fell into a swimming pool. She was unconscious and without oxygen for 45 minutes, resulting in brain damage.
Fifteen months after Sparrow's injury, she received a re-infusion of cord blood stem cells. Her mother noticed improvements the next day. She walked better and spontaneously started talking.
Adriana Zapata was born with Hurler Syndrome. Her body can't produce an enzyme to break down sugar. This rare disease affects all the body's organs. The damage is irreversible. Children seldom live past five years old.
Four year ago, Adriana underwent therapy that included an infusion of cord blood cells. She's surpassed expectations and is excited to start school in September.
Two-year-old Madeline Conner suffered hearing loss in the womb. While her mother was pregnant, she was infected with CMV, a herpes virus that causes developmental disabilities and hearing loss in babies. Madeline did lose her hearing. Madeline is taking part in an FDA-approved study that uses umbilical cord blood to restore hearing in children who have an acquired hearing loss.
The study is in early stages and the researchers haven't published results. Madeline's mom doesn't have specifics, either. She does know that Madeline has begun speaking.
How does cord blood help work these miracles? Cord blood abounds in stem cells which have the potential to develop into a variety of different cell types, including bone, heart, muscle and nerve.
"Cord blood is not an embryonic cell. Cord blood is a mature cell that is in the blood of a newborn baby and present in the cord and in the placenta. These cells are younger than the blood of children or adults but they're definitely not embryonic cells," says Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg, a pioneer in using cord blood as a treatment. In 1993 she performed the world's first cord blood transplant at Duke University Medical Center.
Many life-saving procedures that used to require bone marrow donations can now use cord blood cells instead.
Kurtzberg says a major advantage is, that unlike bone marrow, cord blood doesn't have to match completely. People who can't be matched with a donor -- which can be more than half of the people on transplant lists -- can use a cord blood donor.
Cord blood helps patients suffering from leukemia, sickle cell anemia, other blood disorders and immune and metabolic disorders. It even can change the life of patients who were injured during childbirth and can be used to treat a variety of diseases in adults.
Only one unit of cord blood can make a difference for children battling leukemia and other cancers. Because it doesn't cause as much graft versus host disease, umbilical cord blood is becoming the stem cell source of choice.
You can collect cord blood, save it in your own private bank or donate it to a public bank. Years later, the cord blood can be used by your child or a patient who suffers from cancer or rare genetic disorders.
Right now, most cord blood is thrown into the trash. Sharp Mary Birch in San Diego allows women to donate their cord blood. New programs, like the one developed by the Carolinas Cord Blood Bank, allows moms to request a kit be delivered to their hospital, if it doesn't have a collector on site.
If you'd like to donate your baby's cord blood, you're encouraged to plan ahead. In order to be eligible, moms need to be pre-screened and tested.
Collecting cord blood isn't painful to you or your baby. Once the cord is clamped, a needle is inserted into a section of the cord.
"Mothers are usually not aware. There's a lot going on with moms when they have their babies," says Kristina Lopez, nursing specialist at Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women.