Umbilical Cord Blood Banking: Future Biologic Insurance
If you are planning a pregnancy or are already expecting, you have probably heard about umbilical cord blood (UCB) banking. A baby’s umbilical cord carries a rich source of invaluable stems cells that can be transplanted into an individual to fight serious disease or to correct genetic metabolic disorders. Currently, over 60 conditions can be treated with stem cell transplantation and scientists hope that in the future more therapeutic opportunities will be discovered.
The procedure, which is painless to both mother and baby, takes place immediately after birth when the umbilical cord is clamped and cut. Using a specialized collection kit, the delivering physician collects the umbilical cord blood (UCB) and it is then couriered or shipped to the private cord blood bank. After the umbilical cord blood (UCB) arrives at the cord blood bank, it is inventoried, then processing of the umbilical cord blood (UCB) begins separating out the stem cells. Once processed, the cord blood bank will store the umbilical cord blood (UCB) stem cells in a cryogenic freezer at hundreds of degrees below zero where they remain until needed.
The procedure sounds so remarkable—a useless by-product of birth that traditionally has been discarded now may be a potential lifesaver for not only your baby, but for you, your spouse and the baby’s other siblings and grandparents. Who wouldn’t want to bank cord blood?
“It is a great idea in theory, especially for families who have a high preexisting risk of serious genetic disorders,” says Dr. Sara Hicks, a family practice physician at Leawood Family Physicians. “There have been cases where it really has proven helpful when a child became unexpectedly ill. However, families without specific risks may want to consider if it’s worth it to pay fees for private cord blood banking.”
Although the potential use of umbilical cord blood (UCB) is promising, the odds are low that a family without preexisting risk will ever need to use umbilical cord blood (UCB) stem cells. However, recognizing that life is unpredictable, many couples have decided to preserve their baby’s umbilical cord blood (UCB) with a private cord blood bank as a form of added life insurance. If the unthinkable occurs—a serious, potentially fatal disease—their baby’s stem cells will be available for use in a transplant.
If you are like most expecting parents, you are probably confused about cord blood banking and whether or not it is for you. Below is some background information that may help you with your decision to bank or not to bank.
The Miracle of Stem Cells
Stem cells are essential master cells from which other cells are created. Think of them as “building blocks” of the body’s blood and immune system. They can copy themselves into other specific cell types that make up organs, muscles and nerves and they have the ability to generate blood cells indefinitely.
Stem cells are found in various parts of the body, such as bone marrow, circulating blood in the body (peripheral blood), and also umbilical cord blood (UCB). These types of cells are called hematopoietic stem cells.
Currently, a wide range of cancers, genetic diseases, blood disorders and immune system deficiencies can be treated with hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. In addition, the future looks even more promising. Transplant science has evolved rapidly over the last decade and groundbreaking research suggests that stem cells may someday help cure many more diseases. The use of stem cells is being studied in life-threatening conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and others.
Advantages of Umbilical Cord Blood (UCB) Stem Cells
Bone marrow, which is the most common source of stem cells, has been transplanted for many years. However, any condition that can be treated with a bone marrow transplant has the potential to be treated with umbilical cord blood (UCB). Studies suggest that umbilical cord blood (UCB) stem cells may offer significant advantages over those found in bone marrow.
First, stem cells from cord blood are easier to obtain, and since the collection is done immediately following delivery, the procedure is convenient, painless and poses no risk to the mother or baby. On the other hand, surgery is required to collect cells from deep within the bone marrow and the process is time consuming and often painful.
Secondly, umbilical cord blood (UCB) contains 10-20% more stem cells than those found in bone marrow. Some clinical studies suggest that umbilical cord blood (UCB) stem cells may actually generate more blood cells and, therefore, fewer cells may be needed to perform a successful transplant.
Also, a potentially fatal condition called graft versus host disease (GVHD) occurs less frequently with umbilical cord blood (UCB) stem cell transplantation than with bone marrow procedures. This condition happens when donor stem cells (the “graft”), recognize the transplant recipient’s body (the “host”), as foreign. The stem cells then build a powerful defense of antibodies and fight the recipient’s own immune system, which can cause serious complications, and, possibly even death. It is thought that umbilical cord blood (UCB) stem cells may be less likely to attack the host because they are even more immature than those found in bone marrow and have not yet been “programmed” to strike.
Additionally, finding a perfect match of bone marrow stem cells is difficult, if not impossible, and can be a lengthy process. Thirty to seventy percent of individuals needing a bone marrow transplant never find a proper match.
Public Cord Blood Banking vs. Private Cord Blood Banking
If you choose to store your baby’s umbilical cord blood (UCB), you have two options—donating to a nonprofit public cord blood bank, or paying for it to be stored by a private cord blood bank.
Although donating to a public cord blood bank is free, it’s just that, public. There is no guarantee that your baby’s umbilical cord blood (UCB) will be available exclusively to your family. Any individual who appropriately matches may be allowed to use your baby’s umbilical cord blood (UCB) stem cells.
On the other hand, storing at a private cord blood bank ensures that your baby’s umbilical cord blood (UCB) stem cells can be accessed immediately, if needed, and are preserved only for you and your family.
The major consideration for many parents is the cost of private cord blood banking. Currently, initial enrollment fees at the more than 15 private banks in the U.S. range from $1000 to $1,900 with annual storage costs from $80 to $125.
This added expense when expecting a baby may be a financial burden to some families. However, most private cord blood banks have payment plans available, if desired.
Dr. Hicks, who has delivered hundreds of babies throughout her career, says that although recently there has been more awareness around stem cell research, UCB preservation is just beginning to hit the mainstream in Kansas City.
“This is still a relatively new process,” she says, “but I think as time goes on and more applications for umbilical cord blood (UCB) stem cells are discovered, it will increase enrollment in private cord blood banks.”