Your baby’s umbilical cord is filled with healthy, amazing stem cells. These stem cells have a wide breadth of medical applications, especially when it comes to treating certain blood disorders and genetic conditions.
In the past, umbilical cords had been discarded after a baby’s birth. But now, modern science has offered parents a new option: banking their baby’s cord blood. Cord blood that has been banked is preserved, stored, and able to be used for medical purposes in the future.
Because banking cord blood is a relatively novel option, parents will often have questions about what happens to these stem cells, how they’re stored, and what they might be used for in the future.
What is Cord Blood Banking?
A baby’s umbilical cord is filled with a special kind of cell, called stem cells. These stem cells are powerful on a genetic level, and they can be used to treat a wide variety of ailments, including some types of cancers, blood conditions (such as anemia), and even some disorders of the immune system. Cord blood banking is the process of saving and storing these cells before the umbilical cord is discarded.
What Are Stem Cells?
Your baby’s cord blood is so potent and valuable because it’s filled with something called stem cells. You can think of stem cells as the body’s raw material, almost like blank slates. Stem cells are used to help your body create red blood cells, white blood cells, and so on. In other words, stem cells can divide into many other types of cells. And that’s why they’re so valuable.
Under the right laboratory conditions, stem cells can be used to create medical treatments. Historically, such cells for treatment were gathered from the bone marrow; but bone marrow stem cell donation can be quite painful. Cord blood allows physicians to gather more donor material in a way that does not involve any pain or discomfort.
Conditions that Can Benefit from Cord Stem Cells
The following conditions are often successfully treated with donor stem cells from banked cord blood.
- Leukemia, a cancer of the blood cells (particularly the blood immune system).
- Myelodysplastic Syndromes (often called pre-Leukemia)
- Lymphoma, a cancer of the blood cells and lymph nodes.
- Blood anemias
- Sickle Cell Disease
- Inherited Immune System Disorders
This list is not exclusive. In fact, there are a wide variety of ailments that can have successful stem cell-based therapies and others that are currently being researched.
How Cord Blood is Banked
The banking process itself is generally quite simple and occurs after delivery. Once it is removed from the baby, both ends of the umbilical cord are clamped, and then a physician will use a syringe to collect the desired fluid (generally at least 40mL or so). This collected fluid will then be sent back to the blood bank of your choosing (and there are several choices to make about which type of blood bank is right for you).
Types of Cord Blood Banking
There are three common ways to bank cord blood. These include:
- Public cord blood banking: This service is free. Your physician will collect your baby’s cord blood and that cord blood is then sent to a bank where anybody with a medical need can access donor material. So, you aren’t saving your baby’s cord blood for yourself–you’re making it available to anyone that might need it. In many cases, public cord banks may be full, which means that they are not taking donations at the current time. If cord banks are full, you can talk to your OBGYN about what your options might be.
- Private cord blood banking: A private blood cord bank is designed to keep your baby’s umbilical cord blood reserved for you and your family. No one else can access that cord blood without your permission. Private cord blood facilities charge fees for processing and storing this blood.
- Direct donation banks: These are kind of a combination of both approaches: you have access to the blood you donated, but so does everyone else. The terms and conditions at direct donation banks will likely change from facility to facility. As with public cord banks, these may be full or no longer taking donations. As a result, your options may vary depending on which banks are currently receiving donations.
Patients should plan on bringing their own cord blood collection kits to the hospital at the time of their labor, as most hospitals no longer have them in supply. Additionally, patients will usually be responsible for arranging the transportation of collected cord blood.
How Do You Choose the Right Banking Option?
Each option provides parents with different costs and benefits. In some ways, it can feel as though parents are asked to weigh the possible future benefits to their children against the benefits of others–as well as the possible costs involved. It’s understandable, then, that parentings thinking about banking cord blood would have questions.
The Case Against Banking Cord Blood as “Biological Insurance”
Many parents might initially feel that having access to their baby’s own stem cells will provide a kind of insurance against future illness (in fact, that’s often how private cord banks are marketed).
But the reality is that this rarely happens. That’s because many of the diseases and conditions that stem cells are used to treat are genetic. If your baby is genetically healthy, they won’t need stem-cell based treatment. However, if your child develops a condition such as anemia or leukemia, their stem cells will still not be useful, as the same genetic markers that caused the condition will be present. What would be needed is an infusion of healthy, compatible stem cells.
For this reason, there have been only 400 transfusions from the donor’s own stem cells in the last 20 years (compared to 60,000 transfusions from other donors). There are some rare instances in which saving your own baby’s stem cells as a future insurance policy may make sense, but most physicians regard the chances of this occurring are so remote that the possible benefits do not justify the costs.
Should You Bank Your Baby’s Cord Blood?
The stem cells in banked cord blood can be a significant source of help to others. These stem cells can help treat conditions such as anemia, leukemia, and more. In the future, they may even be able to help treat conditions such as spinal cord injuries or Alzheimer’s disease. This means that banked cord blood can be an absolutely essential resource for those with serious diseases who are seeking treatment.
Right now, the American Association of Pediatrics and other physician associations do not recommend private cord banking, except in cases where a sibling has already been diagnosed with a condition that may benefit from cord blood (such as immune deficiencies, lymphoma, or leukemia, to name a few). Even then, a sibling is only likely to be a donor match in 25% of cases. The majority of treatments will be required to find a donor outside of siblings for successful treatment.
But medical professionals make no such warnings about public cord banking (though most such associations do not make any recommendations in terms of cord blood banking). Banking cord blood can significantly help others, and there are no healthcare risks to the mother or the infant–but it can sometimes feel like a personal decision.
The Decision is Up to You
If cord blood banking is something that you’d like to know more about, you can discuss all your options with your OBGYN. Contact us to schedule an appointment at either our Glenview or Wilmette offices to get all your questions answered!