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When Danni Dean was expecting her son, Luke, four years ago, a friend who was due around the same time mentioned that she was planning to bank her baby’s umbilical cord blood. Dean, who lives in Hailey, Idaho, knew little about cord-blood banking, but after researching it, she and her husband decided they wanted to bank their baby’s blood, too. “We were compelled by the idea of having a store of potentially ‘magic’ cells at our disposal,” Dean says.
Dean and her husband are among the roughly 300,000 couples who have privately stored their baby’s umbilical cord blood over the past decade or so for possible future use as a medical treatment. Question is, is banking your baby’s umbilical cord blood a decision that could someday save your child’s life—or a waste of money?
The stem-cell connection
In healthy people, stem cells serve as a sort of repair system for the body, dividing without limit to replenish other cells in the blood and the immune system. If a disease such as leukemia or a medical treatment such as chemotherapy damages the stem cells, the body needs new ones. These stem cells can come from bone-marrow transplants from a donor who has matching tissue types. Or, they can be found in the blood that remains in a baby’s umbilical cord after it has been cut.
The stem cells in cord blood are different from those that are harvested from embryos: Cord-blood stem cells can be used to generate new blood cells, whereas embryonic stem cells can be used to generate various kinds of organ and tissue cells. Stem cells are currently being used to treat more than 75 diseases, including certain cancers and blood disorders, such as leukemia and lymphoma. In addition, there is emerging clinical evidence that stem cells have the potential to treat diseases and injuries of the heart, brain and spine.
“I don’t think we’ve explored fully the potential that cord blood really has,” says Mary Halet, cord-blood program manager at the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP), a nonprofit organization that maintains the largest public listing of umbilical cord blood available for transplantation in the United States. A study published earlier in The New England Journal of Medicine cites evidence that umbilical stem cells have the ability to reverse brain damage in babies born with rare genetic disorders.
“My medical background had nearly everything to do with my decision to privately bank my daughter’s cord blood,” says Carol L. Kornmehl, M.D., a radiation oncologist at Passaic Beth Israel Regional Medical center in Passaic, N.J. She feels that cord-blood banking is the right choice because, unlike bone-marrow transplants, collection is a risk-free procedure. Plus, umbilical cord cells are less likely to cause graft vs. host disease, a major complication of bone-marrow transplants in which the body rejects the transplanted stem cells.
“Given the fact that my father succumbed to acute leukemia, I wonder whether he might have benefited from this technology had it been available at that time,” Kornmehl says.