Should You Bank Your Baby's Cord Blood?

Here's help separating the hype from the facts so you can decide what's right for you.

Understanding Cord Blood Donation

Margaret Stephens of Fountain Hills, Arizona, first heard about cord blood banking around the time she became pregnant with her daughter, Sylvie, now 8 months old. "My family history of breast and colon cancer and lymphoma played a big part in my decision to bank Sylvie's cord blood," says Stephens. "Even though cord blood stem cells aren't being used to treat those diseases right now, research is ongoing and I really believe this will be the treatment of choice in the future," she explains. "I look at it more as insurance for her, and for me and other family members."

The Stephenses' primary reason for banking their daughter's cord blood -- peace of mind -- is one any parent can relate to. You do so much to prepare for your child's birth and ensure his or her life will be a healthy, happy one. So is cord blood banking one of the things you ought to consider? To decide, it helps to know something about how the process works, and what cord blood may be able to do (and what it can't), should you ever need it.

What Is Cord Blood?

Cord blood is the blood found in the umbilical cord and placenta. It's valuable because it's rich in stem cells, the primitive precursor cells that produce all blood cells. Because cord blood cells can morph into all sorts of other blood cells, they're ideal for treating diseases that harm the blood and immune system, such as leukemia, some cancers, sickle-cell anemia, and some metabolic disorders, says Mitchell Cairo, MD, chief of the division of pediatric hematology and blood and marrow transplantation at Children's Hospital of New York-Presbyterian at Columbia University. (For a complete list of diseases that cord blood cell transplantation may help treat, go to www.marrow.org.)

"For a whole host of disorders, cord blood is a potential gold mine for treatment and, in some cases, cures," says Nancy Green, MD, medical director of the March of Dimes. "It's not experimental; cord blood transplants have been in use for about 15 years -- they're accepted for childhood leukemia and other kinds of disorders."

It's important to note that cord blood stem cells are not the same thing as embryonic stem cells, which are controversial because to obtain them, the human embryo must be destroyed. Experts say cord blood cells have much the same potential as embryonic stem cells without the ethical problems.

There are potential limitations to using stored cord blood. Perhaps most significant, if a baby has a genetic condition, the stem cells would also have that condition, which often rules out using the stored cells. But if an immediate family member has a disease that requires a bone marrow transplant, cord blood from a newborn child in the family may be the best option.

Susan Jarvis-Orr, of Mesa, Arizona, had never heard of cord blood until her son, Brandyn, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia shortly after turning 2. "I was six months pregnant with Kaelyn when Brandyn was diagnosed," says Jarvis-Orr. "Brandyn's doctor recommended that we save Kaelyn's cord blood in case Brandyn needed a bone marrow transplant." The terrified parents did bank Kaelyn's cord blood, as well as the cord blood of two more children born after Kaelyn. Six months after finishing three years of chemotherapy, Brandyn's leukemia returned; his doctors scheduled a transplant and tested his brothers' cord blood cells to see if any were a match for Brandyn's. Devyn, it turned out, was a perfect match for Brandyn. Since the day of the transplant -- November 2, 1999 -- Brandyn has had no recurrence.

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