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As soon as she found out she was pregnant, Blythe Stanford knew she wanted to save her baby's umbilical cord blood—not only for her unborn child, but mainly for her husband, David. "He's partially blind due to diabetes," says Stanford, 34. "I saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have access to stem cells that may one day help him."
Cord blood is rich in hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells, both of which can replace diseased blood cells with healthy blood-forming ones. Since the first transplant in 1988, cord-blood cells have been used to cure leukemia, lymphoma and inherited immune and metabolic disorders in more than 5,500 children. In only a handful of cases have children been treated with their own cord-blood cells, and so recently that long-term results are unknown.
But that's not what has Stanford and researchers like Peter Weiss, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of obstetrics at the University of California, Los Angeles, so excited; rather, it's the potential of other types of cord-blood cells to combat more common health foes—everything from heart disease and diabetes to spinal cord injuries and Alzheimer's disease. "Cord-blood cells are so 'naive,' the hope is that they can be coaxed into becoming not only new blood cells but also new muscle or nerve cells," says Weiss. "It's already happening in laboratories."
Weighing the pros and cons
At an initial cost of between $1,420 and $1,800, plus a $100 to $200 annual storage fee, whether to store cord blood without definitive proof of its broader uses can be a tough call for parents.
Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a statement describing private banking of a baby's cord blood for his future use as "biological insurance," since the likelihood that a child will ever need his own cord blood ranges from 1 in 1,000 to more than 1 in 200,000. Unless an older sibling has an illness that may be helped by a new baby's cord blood, the AAP encourages public banking instead (visit marrow .org and click on "How to Help").
In addition, preliminary research indicates there may be DNA mutations in cord blood obtained from children who later develop diseases, rendering the blood unusable, though this is still a gray area.
"Parents should not be made to feel guilty if they are not eager or able to invest in such a highly speculative venture," the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states.