The Promise of Public Banking
Even if a sick child has a sibling donor, there's only a 25 percent chance that cord blood will be a perfect match -- and an equal chance it won't match at all. That's why public donations are so important. So far, many more stem-cell transplants have been done using cord blood stored in public banks. From 2000 to 2004, more than 2,200 unrelated transplants were done nationwide.
"One of the wonderful things about cord blood is that unlike bone marrow, you don't always need a perfect match in order for it to work," says Dr. Kurtzberg, who performed the first unrelated cord-blood transplant in the U.S. And it was a public donation that ultimately saved Anthony Dones. Within a week of starting a search, the National Cord Blood Program, a public bank operated by the New York Blood Center, found a "close enough" match. Had the now-3-year-old been forced to rely on a bone-marrow match, he might still be waiting.
Until now, however, it hasn't always been easy for couples to donate their baby's cord blood to a public bank. The 28 public banks currently in operation work with only about 100 hospitals in the U.S. (find the list at parentsguidetocordblood.com). If you don't deliver at one of these hospitals, you can contact either Cryobanks International or LifebankUSA, commercial organizations that store both private and public units. These banks pick up the tab for your donation (minus the physician's collection fee).
Complicating matters further, each public bank has its own registry, so transplant centers must search many different databases to find a match for a patient. Currently, a Caucasian patient has an 88 percent chance of finding a cord-blood match through a public-bank registry, and minorities have a 58 percent chance. (Collection hospitals tend to be in areas with higher rates of Caucasian births, and parents from certain ethnic groups are wary of donating for religious or cultural reasons.)
Fortunately, those odds should improve soon. In 2005, Congress passed the Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act, which provides $79 million in federal funding to create a centralized cord-blood registry much like the one that exists for bone marrow. The goal is to expand the existing inventory of 45,000 donated cord-blood units to 150,000.
Ironically, some private banks also hope to benefit from this new legislation. "We have the capabilities and capacity to collect and store donated as well as private units," says Cryo-Cell's Maass. In fact, because the bill recommends that pregnant women be informed of all of their cord-blood options, it's likely that donations to both public and private banks will increase.
Of course, this means that expectant parents will have one more choice to make about their child's health and future. "I certainly don't think parents should feel guilty if they don't privately bank their child's blood," Dr. Kurtzberg says. The best choice is the one that works for your family.