Born with a broken heart, and the cord blood to fix it

Congenital heart defects can now be treated using the child’s own umbilical cord blood instead of donor blood in newborn heart surgery, improving outcomes for babies and reducing anxiety in expectant parents.

How can you get rid of a child that you feel inside yourself every second, listen to its movements and already love more than anything in the world?

Svitlana, mother, Ukraine

At her 20 week scan, Svitlana’s doctors told her that her unborn baby had congenital heart defects and recommended that she terminate her pregnancy. For the Svitlana this was unthinkable.

Following referral to specialists in Kiev, Svitlana’s baby was diagnosed with “ventricular septal defect” and “transposition of the great vessels.” This time, however, her doctors didn’t suggest termination. They told her about the possibility of performing surgery on her son’s heart shortly after birth using umbilical cord blood. Svitlana did not hesitate for a moment.

On September 25, 2009, Svitlana gave birth to a son, Ilya. The boy was immediately taken to the Center of Children’s Cardiology and Cardiosurgery, where he had open-heart surgery a few days later.

During surgery, Ilya’s own umbilical cord blood was used to provide circulation, instead of relying on donor blood. The surgery went well. Mother and baby were discharged from the hospital promptly and Ilya started recovering faster than other children did after similar surgeries.

Now Ilya is 10 years old. The boy is cheerful and active. “So lively and active that sometimes it annoys me,” Svitlana laughs. He rides a bike and skateboard and loves football. Every year the family visits the Kyiv Center of Children’s Cardiology and Cardiosurgery for Ilya’s check-up. The results comfort the parents, and Ilya loves the capital city and dreams of moving to Kyiv one day.

“Now I don’t even want to remember the pain and fear we had to endure” Svitlana admits, “I only advise everyone I know to store umbilical cord blood to take care of the protection of children.”

What is a ‘congenital heart defect’?

Congenital describes a condition you a born with. Babies can be born with hearts that are under-developed or abnormal in a way that threatens their health. Heart defects vary from the minor to the immediately life-threatening. Some people don’t know they have a heart defect until they reach adulthood, while others sadly die during pregnancy or birth.

How common is it to be born a heart defect?

Around 8 in every 1,000 babies born in the UK are born with a heart defect.

It has been estimated that there are 250,000 adults with a congenital heart defect in the UK.

What are the chances of survival?

Many people live with undetected or minor heart defects. However, heart defects are the most common cause of death from a birth defect and are responsible for twice as many deaths as childhood cancer.

Babies born with a compromised heart may need their first open heart surgery at just a few hours or days old. They will need careful monitoring throughout life. Most will need multiple surgeries, some may even need a heart transplant.

How can cord blood help babies with congenital heart defects?

Compared to donated adult blood, umbilical cord blood is enriched with stem cells, is saturated with oxygen, and does not create an additional load on the patient’s immune system.

The idea of using the child’s own umbilical cord blood instead of donor blood in newborn heart surgery was developed jointly by cardiac surgeon Ilya Emetz and the founder of HEMAFUND Yaroslav Isakov.


stem cell preservation

BSc (Hons) Microbiology

Chief Executive Officer | Biovault Family

Biovault Family CEO, Kate Sneddon, joined Biovault in July 2009 and became Chief Executive Officer in 2016. As health industry professional her experience includes working as a microbiologist and leader at GSK for over 10 years. Her expertise in cord blood banking has been recognised in her awards, features in Parliamentary Review and Parents Guide to Cord Blood, as well as contributions to research with UCL and others.

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