Since we were born, technology has developed in an unbelievable way!
Who would have thought twenty years ago that today a newborn baby’s umbilical cord blood might be saved as a sort of cellular insurance policy? When we were born the umbilical cord was just thrown away as useless. Since then it has been discovered that it contains cells that can be used to help fight cancers of the blood but also may well be able to help in the future treat diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s and even strokes.
Umbilical cord blood is rich in hematopoietic stem cells. These stem cells form the building blocks of the blood and immune system.
Umbilical cord blood stem cells can save lives. The first bone marrow transplant was done in 1968, approximately 25,000 allogeneic blood stem cell transplants (including bone marrow and cord blood) are performed per year in the world. According to the Anthony Nolan Trust at any one time, approximately 120,000 patients throughout the world need to find a suitable bone marrow donor.
Cord blood has been used instead of bone marrow to treat diseases such as cancers of the blood (leukaemia), sickle cell anaemia and solid tumours such as neuroblastoma, in the USA as an example, there are estimated to be over a 1 million banked umbilical cord blood samples in both public and private banks. The beauty of cord blood is that is in the freezer, readily available. There is no need to search for a suitable donor and make sure they are still willing to give that valuable donation.
This February (2013) WWL TV, a CBS-affiliate reported from New Orleans on twelve-year-old Kendill and his two-year-old sister Khenadi. It was the umbilical cord saved from Khenadi’s birth that cured Kendill of sickle cell anaemia. Their mother came across the idea of banking her daughter’s umbilical cord blood through an online search. The banked cells turned out to be a very good match for Kendill. “I didn’t know anything about cord blood at all,” Ms Harris their mother is reported confessing. “I hadn’t heard of it, and I didn’t know that the possibility was so great for curing him of sickle cell.” Dr Yu at the Children’s Hospital there confirmed she uses cord blood in about half of her procedures, saying it is often better to use cord blood stem cells than those from bone marrow because you tend not to need so perfect a match with cord blood to have success.
So what exactly happens?
Birth is the one and only opportunity to collect umbilical cord blood stem cells – the umbilical cord blood is usually discarded with the umbilical cord as clinical waste if you don’t save it. The actual umbilical cord blood collection procedure is completely safe and poses no risk to mother or child. It happens just after the birth and all it takes is around five minutes to collect the valuable stem cells; it is always carried out secondary to the care of both mum and baby. It provides peace of mind that the baby’s stem cells are stored and readily available should that child or another member of the family ever need them in the future for that child, or if a suitable match as in the case of Kendill, another member of the family.
Once the baby has been born the midwife or trained phlebotomist simply collects the cord blood using a cord blood collection kit. A sample of blood also has to be taken from mum to test for known viruses, this is a regulatory requirement. The cord blood and maternal blood samples are then sent to the processing laboratory where it is what we call volume reduced. The red blood cells and excess plasma are removed whilst keeping the ‘buffy coat’ which contains the valuable stem cells. The stem cells are then prepared for freezing by adding a cryoprotectant to the cells which protects them during the freezing process. The cells are frozen down to -196oC and then stored in the vapour phase of liquid nitrogen. Once all the results are reported back and the sample is deemed suitable for storing the sample is placed into long-term storage. It is then readily available for that child or another member of the family should they need it in the future. The cells can be shipped to anywhere in the world as the shippers used to transport the cells can hold the required temperature for 5 days.
So what’s the hitch? The answer, as you might expect, is cost. The collection, the processing, the storage have all to be done to the highest medical standards. Right now doing this on an individual scale is not a priority for the NHS. The NHS does have stem cell banks and they hope to find a suitable match should one ever be needed. They will point out that if a family is ‘normal’ and has no genetic illnesses or malignancies then the chance of needing that cord blood is about one in 2,700 although matches get harder with mixed racial backgrounds.
If you do need the stem cells the value is priceless however and many parents abroad and increasingly in the UK prefer to ‘go it alone’ and raise the odds for a child or sibling in need. With research being carried out into the potential use of these cells to treat diseases such as cerebral palsy, diabetes and Parkinson’s, who knows what these stem cells will be used for in the future
In the excitement of pregnancy quite often it is the grandparents who research cord blood banking and as so often happens nowadays, it is they that have the resource to pay for it. As a grandparent, you have the opportunity to help a new grandchild and potentially other grandchildren, by saving their cord blood stem cells in case they need them in the future.
You can do this by using the services of a cord blood bank such as Biovault Family who have been storing samples from around the world for ten years. Read more about the services that we currently offer.