The Cord Blood Controversy

What Banks Don't Tell Parents

While cord-blood companies herald the possible future treatments of many adult diseases with stem cells, they rarely mention a key issue. Researchers have greater hopes for the potential of embryonic stem cells, which are thought to have the ability to develop into many different types of cells. It is not known whether the stem cells in cord blood have that ability; until recently, it was thought that they (like those in bone marrow) could only regenerate blood and immune cells.

What's more, few cord-blood transplants have been given to adults because most units haven't contained enough stem cells to treat anyone weighing more than 90 pounds, says Joanne Kurtzberg, MD, program director of the division of pediatric blood and marrow transplantation at Duke University Medical Center. And since the procedure is relatively new, no one knows how many years the frozen units will remain viable.

In fact, the shocking truth is that the majority of all cord blood stored in private banks may be unusable. Approximately 75 percent of the units donated to public banks are discarded or used in research because they don't contain enough stem cells for transplants, says Mary Halet, manager of cord-blood operations for the Center for Cord Blood at the National Marrow Donor Program, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization that maintains the nation's largest public supply of cord blood. Yet private banks store every unit they collect, which means that you might pay to store blood that won't be usable if you need it years later.

And as Victor and Tracey Dones learned, a child's own cord blood can't always be used to treat him, even when he's young. "Childhood leukemia is one of the diseases private banks like to play up, but most kids with leukemia are cured with chemotherapy alone. If a transplant is needed, we wouldn't use a child's tainted cord blood," Dr. Kurtzberg says.

It would be possible for a healthy child's cord blood to be used to treat a sibling with leukemia, but the banks' literature doesn't spell out that distinction. In the last 10 years, almost all of the approximately 70 cord-blood transplants that have used privately stored blood were given to relatives with preexisting conditions, not to the donors themselves.

In fact, the AAP does encourage parents to keep their child's cord blood if a family member has already been diagnosed with a stem-cell-treatable disease. But a family won't have to foot the bill: The Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute, in California, will bank a baby's cord blood for free if a family member needs it at the time of the baby's birth. Some private banks, such as Cord Blood Registry, Cryo-Cell, and ViaCord, have similar programs.

In 2007, the AAP issued a revised cord-blood-banking policy, that discourages private banks for families who aren't already facing a health crisis. "These banks prey on parents' fears of the unknown, and there's no scientific basis for a number of medical claims they make," says Bertram Lubin, MD, president and director of medical research for Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute, and coauthor for the AAP's 2006 cord-blood-banking committee.

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