Banking on the Future with Cord Blood

Science is finding more uses for newborn cord blood. Here's what you should know.

A Quick Guide to Cord Blood Banking FamVeld/Shutterstock

While pregnant last year with her third child, Ann Juttner of Saugus, Calif., picked up a brochure in her obstetrician's office. "Give your baby a very special gift,'' it read, telling parents how preserving, or banking, a newborn's umbilical cord blood — which usually is discarded after delivery — can help protect their children against certain diseases in the future.

As Juttner pondered this, her mother reminded her of her family's cancer history. Juttner's sister had survived childhood cancer; another sister's son had cancer as a baby. If the cord blood of her third child was stored, it might be of use for her baby, her older children or other family members. Juttner and her husband decided the fees for private cord-blood donation — which can range from $275 to more than $1,500 for collection and first-year storage, plus annual storage fees of $50 or more — were worth it.

If your own family history is healthier than Juttner's, the question of whether to bank cord blood becomes more difficult. Many families decide that family history notwithstanding, banking cord blood is a good insurance policy and one that gives them peace of mind. Why bank your baby's cord blood? Cord blood contains immature cells called stem cells. When transplanted into the body, these cells can duplicate themselves, developing into blood cells as well as specialized cells that can be used to treat patients with defective immune systems, leukemia, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, genetic disorders and other illnesses. Scientists are also studying their potential for the treatment of strokes, Alzheimer's disease, HIV and AIDS-related illnesses, and other disorders.

If you do make the decision to bank your baby's cord blood, the next step is to decide what kind of a blood bank to store it in. At a private bank, you pay collection and storage fees and have exclusive access to your child's cord blood if and when your family needs it. Some banks also charge a retrieval fee at the time of use.

The alternative is to store at a public bank. There is no charge to donate cord blood to a public bank, but the cord blood is available to anyone who needs it. If you do need cord blood from a public bank — your baby's or someone else's — many banks will waive the customary fee if you donated to them. Otherwise, there can be a fee upon retrieval, usually $15,000 to $20,000 for processing and testing of the blood. (The fee may be reimbursed by some insurance companies.)

Representatives of public cord-blood banks say it is possible to donate cord blood to their banks and make immediate use of it, but only if a family member is in need of the cord blood at the time of donation. For instance, if a pregnant woman has a family member with a disease treatable by stem-cell transplantation, a number of public cord-blood programs will bank that cord blood exclusively for her, says John K. Fraser, Ph.D., director of the UCLA Umbilical Cord Blood Bank in Los Angeles.

A public bank cannot reserve a cord-blood donation for the donor in the absence of a current need. However, representatives point out that the cord blood might still be there for the donor's use if and when it is needed in the future.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages parents to practice philanthropic public banking. The AAP also advises only families with a current or potential need for stem-cell transplantation to consider banking at all. However, representatives of private cord-blood banks say that this policy is shortsighted, since new uses for stem cells are constantly being discovered.

That's something to keep in mind when making this decision. Currently, the odds are in your favor that you won't ever need to retrieve your baby's cord blood. For example, at Cryo-Cell, a private bank in Clearwater, Fla., 14,000 samples have been collected since 1997, says a spokeswoman, and none of the samples has been used.

But numbers don't tell the whole story, say advocates of cord-blood banking, especially as research continues to find new uses. Rather, it's all about peace of mind.