Cord blood is becoming an increasingly popular and important topic of discussion among expectant parents. It comes from a newborn’s umbilical cord and contains hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), which are the building blocks of a body’s blood and immune system. After a baby is born, cord blood is routinely discarded as medical waste — unless the parents choose to have what blood remains in the umbilical cord collected. Presently, more than 90% of cord blood is discarded, limiting the potential for therapeutic use and additional research.
But there are other options. At some delivery hospitals, cord blood can be donated to a public bank and made available to patients who are in need of stem cell transplants but have no matching related donor available. Expectant parents also might consider storing their baby’s cord blood with a private cord- blood bank. Such companies charge a fee to collect, process, and cryopreserve newborn stem cells for a family’s potential future medical use.
In the United States, more than a million cord-blood units are currently stored in family or private banks, and more than 210,000 cord-blood units are stored in public banks. During the past 25 years, stem cells derived from cord blood have been used in more than 30,000 transplants performed worldwide for treatment of more than 80 diseases and disorders in both adults and children: e.g., acute and chronic leukemia, sickle-cell disease, and Krabbe disease (1, 2). Researchers are exploring the use of cord-blood stem cells in a number of regenerative medicine applications. It is estimated that nearly a third of people in the United States could benefit from regenerative medicine therapy at some point in life (3).
A growing body of research is providing evidence that stem cells derived from cord blood can help repair damaged or diseased tissue and organs. California-based private cord-blood banking company Cord Blood Registry (CBR) is dedicated to advancing clinical applications of newborn stem cells by partnering with leading research institutions to establish FDA- regulated clinical trials for conditions that have no cure today. Over the past two decades, CBR has stored more than 500,000 cord-blood and cord-tissue units. The company’s goal is to expand the potential scope of newborn stem cell therapies that could be available to patients and their families.
Survey Says . . .
Recently, CBR conducted a randomized online survey of 1,130 people throughout the United States. Among those surveyed, over 75% were aware that stem cell research could help develop more effective treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and certain types of brain injuries, as well as some forms of cancer. Moreover, 90% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that further research should be conducted to investigate the potential of stem cells in stimulating patients’ own bodily repair mechanisms. Eight in 10 of those surveyed wanted to learn more about therapeutic strategies for augmenting, repairing, replacing, or regenerating organs and tissues.
Here are some other key results from the survey:
- Nearly 75% of respondents believe cord-blood banking would be a good investment in their families’ health
- Nearly 50% believe they will personally benefit from cord- blood stem cell research.
- Over 50% would recommend cord-blood banking to others.
In a 2009 survey of obstetricians practicing in major US metropolitan areas, 80% of respondents indicated that they were confident in discussing cord-blood options with their patients but were less confident about their ability to answer patients’ questions about the donation process (4). About half of those surveyed disagreed or strongly disagreed that they had enough information about donating cord blood to answer their patients’ questions.
What Is Needed
To help families make an informed decision, it is critical that obstetricians and other healthcare providers be able to educate expectant parents about private and public banking systems and supply balanced information about current therapies and potential future clinical indications for treatments using cord- blood stem cells. Earlier education is preferred because expectant parents need enough time to consider such a personal decision. Healthcare professionals should provide all expectant parents with fair and balanced information on cord-blood preservation before labor and delivery. That will enable families to make an informed choice regarding their options: preserve stem cells for potential future family use, donate those cells for public use or research, or dispose of the cord blood.
Frances Verter, PhD, is founder and director of the Parent’s Guide to Cord Blood Foundation; firstname.lastname@example.org, http://ParentsGuideCordBlood.org.