Banking on cord blood

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

One of the first acts of love that can be done in the name of a newborn is to donate the infant's umbilical cord blood.

Cord blood contains stem cells, "master cells" that produce the various types of body cells. These cells are used in medical therapies, to treat a variety of cancers blood disorders and genetic diseases. Researchers believe they can also help treat a variety of other diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Suzanne Solari-Price, a family nurse practitioner at Saint Francis Medical Center's Family Birth Place, said that unless cord blood is specifically donated through formal registration, it is discarded.

"We can't take the blood, even though it's not really from the baby; it's from the placenta," Solari-Price said. "We have to get permission. We have to make an initial contact."

Nurses and physicians talk to expecting parents before delivery and explain the procedure and the benefits. Solari-Price, who sees mostly first-time parents, gives them printed information about the donation and answers questions parents may have. Some are frequently confused by the term "stem cells," and she said she assures them that the blood is not used for cloning.

"It is used mainly for people who need a bone-marrow transplant," Solari-Price said.

Some parents may have religious or moral objections to donating cord blood, and their beliefs are respected. Medical professionals say they primarily want to make sure parents have all the information available to them before making the decision to donate their baby's umbilical cord blood.

Families with a history of disorders may want to bank their child's cord blood in a private bank for their own use, but most donate to a public cord blood bank. Both Saint Francis Medical Center and Southeast Missouri Hospital participate in the St. Louis Cord Blood Bank at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital.

Among pediatricians, the question isn't whether a parent should donate cord blood — that's the parents' choice — but where should it be stored. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend private storage, which can be costly.

"Parents are led to believe that a child's own cord blood can be useful later if that child develops cancer or many other diseases," said Dr. William T. Shearer, a pediatrics professor at Baylor College of Medicine in an article in WebMD. "But this has not been shown to be the case."

Public banks store cord blood and make it available to anyone who needs it, similar to donating blood through the American Red Cross.

Once cord blood is donated, it is frozen in liquid nitrogen and can be kept indefinitely.

According to literature Solari-Price gives to expectant parents, not all donated cord blood is stored. The most common reasons for not storing the blood is because the amount collected is too small or contains too few cells. In those cases, the blood is discarded or used for research purposes approved by the St. Louis Cord Blood Bank.

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