Did you know umbilical cord blood is being used to treat a number of cancers of the blood? And did you know you can collect and store the cord blood from your newborn to use in potentially life-saving treatments as they get older? This article explores how umbilical cord blood is used to treat blood cancers, a fascinating story that’s only just beginning and has a lot more to give to parents across the world.
Riley Maclennan’s story
Let’s kick off with something heart-warming. This is Riley Maclennan’s story. In 2021 Riley, aged seven was saved from cancer. It was all thanks to a stem cell transplant taken from a new baby’s umbilical cord. The cord blood collection process is completely safe, easy and fast, and more parents every year are investing in it.
Riley’s myelodysplastic syndrome was a type of blood cancer, very rare in children. The family were told his best chance of survival was a stem cell transplant, using stem cells from umbilical cord blood.
Riley was given the transplant the second time cancer arrived, having endured chemotherapy in isolation miles from home in Glasgow. Now he’s in remission, his parents are thrilled, and he launched World Cancer Day in Scotland on 4th February.
No wonder heart-warming stories like Riley’s inspire us to keep talking about the incredible power of stem cells harvested from umbilical cord blood.
Chris Lihosit’s life-saving treatment
In early August 2015, Chris Lihosit fell ill. He was exhausted, dehydrated, and feverish. He had acute myeloid leukaemia, a fast-progressing and often deadly cancer. The biopsy revealed 80% of his bone marrow cells were cancerous. Worse still, chemotherapy wouldn’t be as effective as usual on this kind of cancer.
Genetic tests made it clear Chris was also in an unusually high-risk category, with just one copy of chromosome 21 leaving him facing a dismal outcome. All this meant the cancer was likely to return without a bone marrow transplant. Sadly that wasn’t possible either, leaving an umbilical cord blood transplant his only option.
Chris’s own bone marrow cells had been destroyed by radiation and chemo. The transplant of just four tablespoons of cord blood extract donated by twin baby girls saved his life. 97 days later Chris was officially declared free from cancer that almost killed him.
About umbilical cord blood and leukaemia
Cord blood is being used to treat one of the most dreaded cancers of all, leukaemia. So what is leukaemia, and how can umbilical cord stem cells be used to treat leukaemia?
Leukaemia is a cancer of the blood cells. It forces the body to make abnormal blood cells, which behave differently from healthy cells. The type of leukaemia depends on the type of cell affected and whether it’s an acute, fast-growing version or a chronic, slower-growth variant of the disease. In its worst form, it is potentially lethal and the chronic form can also kill.
Cord blood transplants are being used to treat leukaemia, and have been used since the early 1990s in both children and adults. So far most of the world’s 35,000 cord blood transplants have been used to treat leukaemia patients and people with other blood disorders.
One piece of 2016 research by the New England Journal of Medicine compared cord blood transplants to bone marrow transplants for leukaemia. While both groups had roughly the same survival rate, cord blood patients lived for longer and were less at risk of relapse.
Importantly, children with leukaemia or other blood disorders need a transplant from a donor, not their own cord blood. This is because some children and teens get leukaemia because of a genetic defect, which means it’s no good transplanting the defect back into their body via their own cord blood.
Stem cell treatment and acute lymphoblastic leukaemia
A stem cell transplant might be offered as part of the treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, also called ALL. The transplant means you can have high doses of chemotherapy and other treatments more safely than without the treatment. A transplant like this is most likely when your cancer has features that suggest it might return after being treated, or it has come back and you have already relapsed.
Experts believe cord blood stem cells can work better than the alternatives
The 2016 research we mentioned earlier revealed umbilical cord blood as having the potential to work better against leukaemia than bone marrow and stem cells from other sources. In the words of an assistant member of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, “In centres with experience, it can yield great outcomes.”
This is the case, especially for those patients who have ‘minimal residual disease’, in other words, small numbers of cancer cells remit becomes ‘significantly’ lower after a cord blood stem cell transplant.
Cord blood cancer treatment advances in Canada
Over in Canada, Dr. Marjorie Brand is using umbilical cord blood to study blood diseases and cancers. She rates cord blood highly and is especially interested in the formation of red blood cells from the original hematopoietic stem cells they begin life as.
The discovery that two proteins compete inside each cell and the ‘winner’ turns into a blood cell or platelet was a “breakthrough in the field of stem cell biology”. Knowing how the process works should ultimately improve leukaemia detection levels and suggest new potential treatments, including innovative drugs for leukaemia patients.
What’s the future of umbilical cord blood therapies?
We scanned the New Scientist website for more news about cord blood treatments. We found articles talking about the way blood from human babies makes the brains of elderly mice young again, how it might one day be able to fix your brain after a stroke, and the way these cells appear to kill cancer faster than adult stem cells. They’re described as a potential ‘lifeline’ for stroke patients, and they’re popular because they are ethical, harvested from cord blood that would otherwise be discarded rather than from human embryos.
The future is looking bright in our world. Will you collect and store your newborn’s cord blood for a brighter healthcare future?
Answering your questions about cord blood cancer treatment
What is a cord blood transplant? How can I store my baby’s cord blood? They’re increasingly common questions, and we’re delighted to provide answers. Want to find out more? Download our brochure or contact our expert team.
- Press and Journal
- Cancer Research UK
- Consumer Healthday
- Parents guide to cord blood to treat leukaemia
- US National Library of Medicine National Institutes for Health
- Anthony Nolan
- Blood CA
- Cord Blood Banking
- New Scientist magazine
BSc (Hons) Microbiology
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.