Cord blood transplants provide an opportunity for a cure from blood cancer with siblings offering the best chance of finding a match
September marks Blood Cancer Awareness Month. Every year, more than 2,000 people in the UK with a blood cancer or blood disorder are in need of a potentially lifesaving blood stem cell donation from an unrelated person.
Cord blood is collected from the umbilical cord and placenta of healthy newborns and it has an important and growing role in the treatment of more than 80 diseases, including blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma. That’s because the umbilical cord contains something very precious: hematopoietic stem cells.
Hematopoietic stem cells are the immature blood-forming cells found in everyone’s blood and bone marrow. These little cells have an important job. They change into the red or white blood cells and platelets your body needs to stay healthy and they are very good at fighting cancer.
They have been tested in both child and adult cancer patients and these studies have identified several advantages to umbilical-cord cell transplantation, including a lower incidence of graft-versus-host disease. Umbilical-cord blood is therefore a promising alternative to bone-marrow-derived stem cells.
As a source of stem cells for people with cancer, cord blood has major advantages. Cord blood collections used for donor transplants are stored frozen in public cord blood banks. Because cord blood is in frozen storage, it is available right away. This makes the transplant easy to schedule. It is also good for people who need an urgent transplant.
Cord blood has another advantage. Because the immune system of a newborn baby is not yet fully developed, the match that’s required between the cord blood donation and the patient is less strict. This means that cord blood can safely be used even if the donor cells have a less than perfect match.
The test that’s used to identify appropriate donors is called HLA matching. HLA stands for human leukocyte antigen. HLAs are proteins that are present on most cells in your body. Your immune system uses HLAs to recognize which cells belong in your body. When using an adult donor, it’s important that the donor and the person undergoing the transplant have HLAs that match so the donor immune system doesn’t attack the patient’s normal tissues, a complication called graft-versus-host disease.
A person’s HLA type is inherited from their parents, which is why siblings offer the best chance of finding a match and why it is important for all new parents to consider this future health insurance.
Cord blood cells are also very good at fighting cancer. This ability is called the graft-versus-leukemia effect. It can help prevent a person’s cancer from returning after their transplant.
If you are considering saving your baby’s cord blood, please do get in touch.