Cord blood banking refers to the storage, public or private, of umbilical cord blood, which may be used to treat certain diseases of the blood and immune system. Once a baby has been born, he or she no longer needs the blood that remains in the umbilical cord. Until recently, that blood was disposed of, but now that we know it can save lives, cord blood banking has become an acceptable practice in the medical community.
Cord blood is rich in hematopoietic stem cells, which means this blood can form white or red blood cells, platelets, and plasma. While this is similar to the make-up of bone marrow, because cord blood transplants don’t require a perfect match the way bone marrow transplants do, it can be used in transplants in much the same way bone marrow is; only with less chance of rejection. This means that more people can benefit from these transplants in a shorter time span instead of waiting years for a compatible donor.
Cord blood is collected immediately after the birth of the baby. If collected in-utero, it is collected after the baby is delivered but before the placenta has been delivered. Ex-utero cord blood collection refers to the collection of the umbilical cord blood after both the baby and the placenta has been delivered. There are no health risks associated with cord blood collection, either to the mother or the newborn.
Common methods of cord blood collection include inserting a syringe into the umbilical cord and drawing out the cord blood, or allowing the blood to drain into a sterile bag after the cord has been elevated. This procedure can be performed with either a vaginal delivery or Caesarean Section. However, it must be done immediately after the birth and processed within 24 48 hours.
This processing includes routine testing, including testing for HIV and Hepatitis B and C. The cord blood is then stored frozen, ready for use. While studies for expiration dates are still ongoing, the New York Blood Center’s National Cord Blood Program (NCBP) has used cord blood in transplants that has been stored up to 10 years with the same results as cord blood used in transplants right after processing. Thus, while we have passed the 10 year milestone, it may be some time before we know exactly how long frozen umbilical cord blood is viable for transplanting.
According to the NCBP, more than 70 different diseases have been treated with cord blood so far. These include different types of leukemia, Fanconi’s anemia, Hodgkin’s disease, sickle cell disease, lymphomas, and many others. Because cord blood is collected in advance, tested, and ready for use, it offers several advantages over a bone marrow transplant, in addition to the fact that cord blood recipients don’t have to be a perfect match the way bone marrow recipients do.
There are both public and private cord blood banks. Public cord blood banks store cord blood for the benefit of the general public while private cord blood banks store umbilical cord blood for the benefit of the donor or his or her family. With a public cord blood bank, once all the testing is completed, all traces of the donor are eliminated, so there is no chance for anyone to request or receive a particular donor’s cord blood.
Public cord blood banks are not-for-profit and donors pay no storage fees while private cord blood banks charge storage fees, as well as processing and collection fees. However, it is worth it to those who choose to go this route as they are assured of a perfect match should their baby need a transplant later on. It is certainly a viable option for those who have a baby with a transplantable condition or who may be at a high risk for such a condition.