Umbilical cord blood is rather magical. The stem cells it contains have all sorts of health benefits, widely used to help treat a huge variety of conditions, some very serious. As experts in cord blood banking, we decided to explore the science and tell you the truth behind cord blood treatment for autism.
About umbilical cord blood and autism – The science bit!
Precious umbilical cord blood can be easily collected when your baby is born, then stored for future use to treat the child or another close member of your family. Does cord blood treatment prevent autism or affect the condition in any other positive way?
It’s important because one in 68 children suffer from ASD, Autism Spectrum Disorder. It’s more than four times more common in boys than girls and it can happen to every child, whatever their background. So far, nobody knows the cause or causes behind the condition. But some experts believe it could be down to the immune system which, in some cases, reveals an ‘elevated response’. If this proves to be the case, and if the immune response can be somehow calmed down, doing so should help protect a child from developing autism.
The science behind cord blood cells
Cord blood stem cells are thought to have anti-inflammatory properties. Research reveals the cells in cord blood can regulate inflammation, migrating to the site of the injury. The ‘Bystander Effect’ is also at work here, where umbilical cord blood cells secrete substances to support the body’s natural repair mechanisms in surrounding tissue.
Two key scientific studies
In 2014 a study by Duke University Medicine explored using umbilical cord blood cells to treat autism, along with strokes, cerebral palsy and other similar brain disorders. The study, whose results were released in 2017, looked into the safety of giving the children an intravenous infusion of their own umbilical cord blood.
In the phase I study, involving 25 children aged between 2 and 5, researchers saw more than 66% showing better speech, better social skills, and increased eye contact as reported by parents and assessed by experts. This left the study’s creators feeling ‘cautiously optimistic’. The results inspired full double blind placebo-controlled phase 2 research, with answers posted in 2019. Sadly the results were inconclusive, as later confirmed in 2020.
In another study, this time in 2017, Dr. Michael Chez, Director of Paediatric Neurology at Sutter Medical Centre in California, USA, designed an experiment to look into using umbilical cord blood to treat autism. The study involved thirty children with autism aged between two and seven, all of whom had their cord blood cells harvested and banked at birth.
Every child’s autism was carefully evaluated before the experiment began. Then the children were randomly given either cord blood or a saline placebo IV-infusion before being monitored carefully for 24 weeks. After that each child was given the opposite infusion and monitored for a further 24 weeks. Nobody, including the researchers themselves, knew which child had been given which infusion first.
The results revealed that while cord blood infusions appeared safe in children with autism, and some of the children were found to have improved in some ways, the improvements couldn’t be applied to all the children, and there was no overall trend of improvements.
It’s also important to know that 30 children isn’t a big enough number to make statistically valid conclusions, which means the results weren’t statistically significant. And that means more research is needed to prove or disprove the theory.
The future cord blood banking outlook for autism
Scientists believe this is only the start of the autism story, and that cord blood stem cells might still prove to have a positive impact on helping children avoid developing autism. For now, the jury is out. Much bigger studies are essential to find any evidence, if indeed there is any evidence to find.
You can rely on us to provide you with the latest science, information from experts that you can trust rather than unreliable reports from the media. Would you like to store your baby’s cord blood for a healthier future? If so, we can help!
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.