Cord Blood Banking: 5 Things Pregnant Women Need to Know

When bringing a child into the world, the contents of your baby’s umbilical cord may be the last thing on your mind. Many people don’t know that the blood remaining in the cord after birth is rich with stem cells that can be used in the treatment of over 80 life-threatening diseases, including a range of cancers, genetic diseases, immune system deficiencies and blood disorders. In recognition of National Cord Blood Awareness Month, see below for answers to common questions about cord blood banking.

What is cord blood used for? 

Umbilical cord blood is valuable because it is packed with stem cells. Scientists have discovered that healthy stem cells can be introduced to a sick person’s body to treat blood and bone marrow cancers as well as other diseases, and may have the potential to treat health concerns like diabetes, heart disease and even autism in the future. Cord blood can be frozen and used later for the child, his or her relatives or even strangers.

Is banking cord blood the only method of stem cell therapy? 

There are currently three types of stem cell transplant donations: cord blood, peripheral blood and bone marrow. Peripheral blood is collected through a time-intensive, sometimes painful process of filtering stem cells from the blood and returning the blood to the donor. Bone marrow donation is a surgical procedure in which liquid marrow is removed from the donor’s hips. Both of these donation processes carry risks for both the donor and recipient. The cord blood donation process carries no risk to the donor and minimized risk to the recipient. According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, serious and sometimes fatal side effects of stem cell transplants occur less often and less severely in patients who receive cord blood stem cell treatments. In addition, patients seeking stem cell therapy have a higher chance of finding a match among cord blood donations.

What is private banking?

There are two paths to consider when choosing to store cord blood: private and public banking. Private banking, a costly service provided by dozens of companies, ensures that the family has control over the unit and can use it for their own personal needs at any time. It is available for use by the child, his or her siblings or other family members as long as payments are made to keep it stored. However, the chances that a child will need their own stem cells in the future are slim. There is also the possibility that the stem cells present in the cord blood may contain the same defect or disease that the cells would be intended to treat later in life.

What is public banking?

Unless the child has a sibling or close relative with a known condition that could be treated with a cord blood transplant, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents primarily consider public cord blood banking. Free of cost to the donor family, public banking is an anonymous donation to a registry that doctors and patients in need can use to search internationally for a matching stem cell donor. The National Marrow Donor Program maintains the largest and most diverse public bank, also known as the “Be The Match” registry.

How does the cord blood collection process work?

The process for extracting cord blood is simple, completely painless and risk-free for both mother and baby. On the day of delivery, a maternal blood sample will be drawn to test for any infection or disease that could be transmitted. After the baby is born, the cord will be clamped, cut and cleaned safely away from the newborn and mother. The physician will then use a needle to draw the blood from a vein in the cord and any superficial veins in the placenta. It is then packaged, frozen and shipped to the private or public cord blood bank.

This guest post is by Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker, a physician consultant at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

Photo Credit: Daniel Lobo, Flickr

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