Umbilical cord blood stem cells are different from embryonic stem cells. Umbilical cord blood stem cells are collected by your ob-gyn or a nurse from the umbilical cord after you give birth (but before your placenta is delivered). Embryonic stem cells are collected when a human embryo is destroyed.
Only three to five ounces of blood is collected from each umbilical cord. This small amount is enough to treat a sick child, but not an adult, unless multiple units of matched cord blood are used, says William T. Shearer, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Pediatrics and Immunology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
There are two main types of cord blood banks: public and private. Public cord blood banks are usually nonprofit companies that store your donated cord blood for free, to be used for any sick child in another family or for research purposes, so accessing and using your own cord blood is not guaranteed. Private cord blood banks are companies that require a registration fee (plus annual storage fees) for your cord blood, but it is saved specifically for your own family, so you'll have ready access to it.
You need to plan ahead if you decide to store cord blood. Banks need to be notified four to six weeks before your due date if you're interested in donating blood. Once you do decide on a public bank, those affiliated with the Be the Match registry (bethematch.org/cord) will cover the costs of collecting, processing, and storing cord blood units.
For families that choose to bank cord blood, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends public cord blood banking. Estimates vary, but the chances of a child having a stem cell transplant, with either bone marrow or cord blood, are 1 in 217 over a lifetime. Although the AAP states cord blood has been used to treat certain diseases successfully, there isn't strong evidence to support cord blood banking. If a family does decide on cord blood banking, the AAP recommends public cord blood banking (instead of private) to cut down on costs. If you donate cord blood and your child eventually needs it, you can get it back as long as it hasn't been discarded or used.
Certain public cord blood banks let you mail in your cord blood. You have to decide before the birth if you want to donate your cord blood. If the hospital where you're delivering doesn't accept donations, you can contact a lab that offers a mail-in delivery program. After you've passed the lab's screening process, they'll send you a kit that you can use to package your blood and mail it in, explains Frances Verter, Ph.D., founder and director of Parent's Guide to Cord Blood Foundation (parentsguidecordblood.org), a nonprofit dedicated to educating parents about cord blood donation and cord blood therapists.
Private cord blood banking is recommended for families with a history of certain diseases. Specifically, these are families with diseases that harm the blood and immune system, such as leukemia and certain cancers, sickle-cell anemia, and some metabolic disorders. Why? The type of stem cells in cord blood can form all kinds of blood cells that can help treat these diseases.
Some financial aid is available for families that opt for private cord blood banking. If you have a sick child who could benefit from umbilical cord blood, some cord blood banks offer programs in which the bank will cover free cord blood processing and storage if the baby has a biological sibling with certain diseases. Certain insurance companies may pitch in if that sibling needs to be treated with the cord blood in the near future, Dr. Verter says.
Not all moms can donate their cord blood. Moms who are not eligible are those who: are younger than 18 years old (in most states), have been treated for cancer or have received chemotherapy for another illness, have had malaria in the last three years, or have been treated for a blood disease such as HIV or hepatitis. It's also not possible to donate cord blood if a mom has delivered her baby prematurely (there may not be enough blood to collect) or delivered multiples (but it's possible to bank your cord blood of multiples privately).
All cord blood is screened and tested. Whether you use a public or private bank, you'll still need to be tested for various infections (such as hepatitis and HIV). If tests come back positive for disease or infection, you will not be able to store your cord blood.
Properly preserved cord blood is long-lasting. Cord blood is stored in a nitrogen freezer (the same technology used to freeze donated sperm), so it can last for a long time. "The scientist who first developed cord blood preservation methods in 1990 has confirmed that some of the first specimens he stored 23 plus years ago are just as potent as fresh cord blood," says Mary Halet, Director, Central Region at Be The Match, which is operated by the National Bone Marrow Foundation.
Cord blood transplants aren't entirely new -- they've been in use for about 20 years. In fact, the outcome of transplants has improved in the last 10 years, says Joanne Kurtzberg, M.D., director of the pediatric bone marrow and stem cell transplant program at Duke University.
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