The blood that remains in your baby’s placenta and umbilical cord after birth is a rich, accessible and non-controversial source of haematopoietic stem cells (HSCs): extraordinary cells that can differentiate to become any type of blood cell.
HSCs can regenerate to replace any damaged blood cell in the human body, giving them the unique ability to treat diseases of the blood and immune systems.
The umbilical connects mother and child throughout pregnancy, growing as your baby grows and nourishing the developing foetus.
The muscular walls of the cord are strong and flexible, and contain a rich gelatinous liquid called Wharton’s Jelly. This jelly protects the life-giving blood vessels of the umbilical cord: the umbilical vein and two umbilical arteries.
Oxygen, nutrients and antibodies pass between maternal blood and the umbilical vein and foetal waste travels from umbilical arteries to maternal blood. This exchange of oxygen and nutrients is the support system for the developing foetus.
When the baby is born, it takes its first breath and its lungs fill with oxygen. The baby cries, feeds… and new, lifelong bonds of family are formed.
But what about the umbilical cord, and the blood and jelly it contains?
In the UK the cord is usually treated as clinical waste; but sometimes it is preserved, and continues to be a lifeline for babies and their families.
The blood remaining in your baby’s placenta and umbilical cord after birth is one of the richest sources of human haematopoietic stem cells (HSCs).
HSCs have the potential to regenerate and replace any damaged blood cell in the human body, giving them the unique ability to treat cancers and other diseases threatening our blood or immune system.
Cord blood stem cells are used as an alternative to bone marrow stem cells and have successfully treated leukaemia, immunodeficiency, sickle cell anaemia, lymphomas and other diseases of the blood.
Research is also underway in HSC therapies for breast cancer, HIV, diabetes, and disorders of the nervous system such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
Stored cord blood stem cells have significant medical advantages over their bone marrow counterparts. Bone marrow collection is invasive and can be a painful procedure. More significantly, it sometimes takes a long time to find a suitable match.
Stored cord blood HSCs are immediately available and belong to the donor child. This eliminates the risk of rejection and offers a greater chance of compatibility with other family members.
Cord blood stem cells have the advantages of embryonic stem cells without controversy. The youthful potency and pliancy of umbilical cells has been proven to reduce the incidence of graft-versus-host disease, meaning that patients recover more quickly and are less likely to suffer a relapse than patients treated with bone marrow stem cells.
When a patient is treated with their own cells, it is defined as an autologous transplant; if they receive cells from a donor the transplant is allogenic.
In the UK, parents can choose to store their baby’s cord blood privately, or donate to a public bank. Private banking is the only way to guarantee that matching stem cells are available should your child or matched relative ever need a haematopoietic stem cell transplant. It is particularly important to store privately if a member of your family has a condition such as sickle cell disease, which can be cured with matching HSCs. Some families also choose to store cord blood to treat an older relative who has received a blood or immune disease diagnosis.
For other conditions however, there may be a genetic predisposition to that disease, and in these cases a patient may not be able to use his or her own stem cells. In this situation a matched sibling’s stem cells would be the first choice before looking for alternative donors.
For most families, cord blood and tissue storage is an insurance policy they hope never to use. The steady rise in life-enhancing as well as life-saving stem cell therapies, however, suggests we may all use regenerative treatments one day.
Cord blood can also be donated to public banks. The blood cancer charity, Anthony Nolan collect umbilical cord blood at some UK hospitals for the treatment of patients waiting for matching stem cells.
The Human Tissue Authority offers independent information and guidance for families choosing between public and private cord blood storage.
Perhaps the most exciting recent development in stem cell science is the discovery that the tissue of the umbilical cord is a rich source of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs).
Like the HSCs in cord blood, MSCs are able to renew and differentiate to create new specialist cell types. But, whereas HSCs develop into blood cells, MSCs differentiate into tissues, such as bone, nerve, tendon and muscle. It is hoped that in the future MSCs will play an important part in a variety of medical and clinical procedures to regenerate damaged or diseased tissue.
There is extensive and on-going research into the clinical uses of MSCs, though it must be stressed that these trials are incomplete and that no treatment has yet been proven.
Biovault Family offer the processing and storage of cord tissue to facilitate the future potential of MSCs and are actively engaged in MSC research and development.
HSCs like those in your baby’s cord blood have been used for over 30 years to treat a conditions affecting the blood and immune systems. Today, these include:
Research suggests that mesenchymal stem cells like those found in cord tissue will soon be used to repair and replace damaged tissues and organs.
Scientists are currently investigating treatments for:
Never content to rest on yesterday’s research, Biovault’s scientists are active contributors to tomorrow’s treatments. Following the award of a prestigious Industrial Fellowship by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, our lead scientist Shaun Mansfield is working with University College London to increase the yield of stem cells from umbilical cord blood to improve the treatment of blood cancers.
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