Today’s expectant parents are faced with many decisions about the type of birth they want to have: Birthing center or hospital? Epidural or natural? Rooming in with baby or, “Please take that baby to the nursery and let me sleep!”
When my wife was pregnant with our third child, I remember sitting in our obstetrician’s (OB) waiting room together while my wife flipped through the latest pregnancy magazine. I wasn’t paying much attention because we had already made every possible decision about our birth. We knew exactly what type of birth we wanted, and now it was just a matter of waiting.
“Hey honey, look at this!” I heard my wife say. She showed me an article about cord blood stem cell banking and asked me if we should look into it. What I wanted to say was, “Oh no. Now we have to make another decision about our birth.” But what came out of my mouth was “That’s interesting dear, but it’s way too complicated and probably just a gimmick anyway.” Well, my wife read through the article and by the end she was convinced we should do it. It appeared we had made another decision.
Over the next couple of weeks I researched the issue thoroughly. If we were going to bank our baby’s cord blood, we were going to do it right. I discovered it was much simpler than I’d imagined. The cord blood wouldn’t actually be taken from our baby at all. After the umbilical cord is cut, the blood is drained out of the placenta and remaining umbilical cord, thus the term, “cord blood.” This blood is rich in baby’s “stem cells,” which are immature blood cells that are able to change and mature into any type of blood cell as baby grows, just like bone marrow cells. These cells are preserved in a storage facility, ready for use when needed.
My wife felt strongly about banking the baby’s blood because she had cancer as a teenager. She wanted to take every precaution for our kids, and having some cord blood available in case any of them should need it gave her peace of mind. And, she could even use it herself. Of course, we hoped we would never need it for these reasons, but as I read more about stem cells, I found out there were many more uses than just treating cancer. Research is showing promising results using stem cells to treat heart disease and neurological diseases. This is really what got me excited about banking our baby’s blood – not just to treat cancer, but for all the other chronic diseases that could possibly be cured or improved with this new and innovative treatment. I decided to invest in our family’s future.
The Benefits of Family Cord Blood Banking
Cord blood stem cells are not just for your baby. It’s really an investment for the whole family. Virtually all mothers and about half of siblings will be a suitable match for baby’s stem cells. And while the chance that any family member will use the cord blood for cancer treatment is very low, the likelihood that it could be used to treat a variety of other diseases is considerable. The list of such diseases is growing every year as researchers study this fascinating field.
Heart Attacks. Doctors have infused stem cells into the damaged heart muscle of numerous heart attack patients to see if the cells would generate new heart tissue and repair the damage. Results so far look promising.
Coronary Artery Disease. Doctors have infused stem cells in the hearts of patients with clogged arteries. The stem cells helped new blood vessels grow around the blocked arteries, thus improving blood flow to the areas in the heart at risk of damage.
Vascular Disease. Stem cells have been shown to grow new blood vessels around narrowed or damaged arteries in the limbs and restore impaired blood flow.
Nerve and Brain Damage. Researchers have recently shown in a laboratory setting that human stem cells can mature into nerve cells. The implication of this for treating a variety of neurological problems is astounding.
Strokes. Researchers have shown that infusing human stem cells into rats improves brain function after a stroke or traumatic brain injury.
Multiple Sclerosis. Doctors have infused stem cells into patients with MS and have shown mild improvement in their disease.
Cardiovascular disease (heart attacks and strokes) is the number one cause of death. If stem cell treatments become a viable and routine option for preventing and treating cardiovascular disease, then having banked stem cells will be an enormous advantage. If researchers continue to show stem cells’ ability to regenerate damaged or diseased brain tissue, then the possibility for treating neurological conditions such as MS, Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s is exciting. Diabetes is another disease that is affecting more and more people. If stem cells could regenerate new pancreas tissue, millions of people could benefit. Who knows where we’ll be with stem cell treatments in 10 or 20 years?
Cancer and other blood-related disorders. Besides these exciting possibilities, there are still the current uses for treating certain cancers and other blood problems. Recent research in the field of Oncology showed the chance that a person would need to use his or her own banked stem cells for current treatments by the time they are 21 is one in 2700, and the chance that a family member could use them is one in 1400. Stem cells can either be taken from the patient’s or a matching family member’s bone marrow, or from stored cord blood. Here are some benefits when cord blood is used instead of bone marrow:
- Research has shown that survival rates double when a person’s own cord blood or a family member’s cord blood is used, compared to using an unrelated donor sample from a public stem cell bank.
- Having your own private sample ensures immediate availability of a perfectly matched sample.
- While bone marrow can also be a source of stem cells if needed, cord blood stem cells are easier to match for family members, thus increasing the chance that a family member can receive a related stem cell transplant.
- Research has shown that patients who receive cord blood stem cell transplants have a smaller chance of rejecting the cells, compared to bone marrow stem cell transplants.
During my pediatric training I spent two months in the Children’s Hospital Bone Marrow Transplant ward. I watched numerous kids undergo these transplants. Kids who used their own bone marrow, or a family member’s marrow, faired much better. This is one reason I decided to bank my child’s cord blood. It provides some peace of mind that if ever our family is faced with such a challenge, we will have better treatment options available to us.
How cord blood is collected and stored
Months before your due date, the cord blood bank sends you a collection kit that contains everything that is needed for the process. The bank also sends your OB or Midwife instructions to make sure he or she knows how to collect the blood. When baby is born, and the umbilical cord is cut, the OB or Midwife collects the blood from the remaining umbilical cord and placenta (not from baby) into a syringe or blood bag. The process only takes a few minutes, and the blood is then set aside until all the birth excitement dies down. It can even be collected during a C-section. A family member places the cord blood into the pre-addressed mailing package, and makes one phone call to a medical courier to pick up the kit. Within hours the cord blood is picked up and shipped overnight to the cord blood bank. Once there, it is processed. The stem cells are removed from the cord blood, and it is placed into deep freeze storage. Collecting cord blood is simple, completely safe and non-invasive, and takes very little time.
Deciding whether or not to bank your baby’s cord blood is a personal decision and a financial commitment. But parents only have one chance with each child to take advantage of this technology. You can enroll anytime during your pregnancy, but the earlier you do so, the more time you and your labor attendant have to receive the collection kit. When choosing where to store your child’s cord blood cells, it’s important to ask questions and research your decision carefully. Make sure the choice you make is as serious about storing the cord blood cells as you are.
Donating Cord Blood to a Public Bank
Parents who choose not to bank their baby’s cord blood through a private bank should strongly consider donating it to a public bank. There are several around the country, and some hospitals have programs set up for parents to donate. This makes the stem cells available to anyone who matches, and there is a huge need for this worldwide. Parents can investigate this option at their birth hospital. Donated units, however, are almost never available to the donating family if the need should arise.