Cord blood by definition is simply the foetal blood that remains in the placenta and in the attached umbilical cord at the time of a baby’s birth. This blood was traditionally discarded at time of birth prior to studies and realisation of the usefulness of cord blood.
Cord Blood Banking is the process and practice of preserving this cord blood for future use.
What’s so special about cord blood?
Umbilical cord blood is special because it contains a lot of hematopoietic stem cells – cells which normally develop into red blood cells that carry oxygen, white blood cells that fight infection, and platelets that help make blood clot.
Stem cells are unspecialised cells that retain the ability to divide throughout life and can develop into several different kinds of specialised cells that can take the place of cells that die or are lost. Stem cells contribute to the body’s ability to renew and repair its tissues.
What’s all the controversy about stem cells and cord blood?
Most of the controversy about stem cell collection and use is not about cord blood cells.
The controversy in the stem cell debate exists over stem cells taken from embryos, with the obvious controversial question being “is it ethical to destroy an embryo for medical or research purposes?” Embryos contain pluripotent stem cells, the most basic stem cells which are the building blocks for new tissue and organs.
Cord blood stem cells are not taken from embryos, and in most situations they would otherwise be discarded as medical waste. Collection of these stem cells does not harm the mother or the baby.
What is cord blood used for?
According to the Australian Cord Blood Foundation, over 90% of patients are able to find a suitable cord blood for transplant, and over 25,000 cord blood transplants have been undertaken in children and adults in the last 24 years as a curative treatment for diseases including:
• Malignancies – acute and chronic leukaemia’s and lymphomas
• Blood disorders such as Aplastic Anaemia, Fanconi Anaemia, Thalassaemia
• Immune deficiencies
• Metabolic Storage diseases.
There are some claims by various organisations and companies that cord blood can prevent or cure a range of other diseases, but there are no guarantees that this is true. Cord blood research continues throughout the world with a major focus on how it can be used in the future.
This research suggests that under the right circumstances, cord blood can be used to treat a much broader range of diseases, without the same degree of ethical controversy that exists with embryo stem cell usage.
Three options for storing cord blood
In Australia, the 3 main options for storing cord blood are:
- A donation to a public cord bank – cord blood is collected and stored for the use of anyone in Australia or overseas. There are no costs involved to the donor, however the blood is not reserved for your family and there are only certain hospitals that perform the procedure during established hours.
- a directed donation – collection and storage for a family member who has a medical condition that is able to be treated with cord blood transplantation
- donating to a private cord bank – private cord banks charge a fee for their services, usually for both collection and storage. The ownership then remains with you & can’t be used by anyone else. A prepaid plan to store cord blood for 18 years may cost around $3,000 – $5,000.
Is it worth paying to store cord blood?
Most Australian cord blood services and hospitals support the free public cord bank service, but tend to not recommend private cord blood donations.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the chance that your child will ever use the banked cord blood is remote. Also, should your child need a stem cell transplant, there’s no guarantee that the banked cord blood will remain viable or be suitable for a transplant.
Other criticisms are that private cord banks are expensive, exploit parent’s anxiety about their child’s future health, and some of the claims made regarding future use of the stem cells are only hypothetical.
It has also been pointed out by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) that for “cancers of the blood, bone marrow and lymph nodes a donor is usually recommended over the use of the patient’s stored cord blood. This is because it is thought that the abnormality that gave rise to the disease may already be present in the person’s cord blood cells and, therefore, a healthy donor is preferable.”
In fact, according to Mark Kirkland, medical director of private bank Cell Care, just six out of an estimated 30,000 people who banked cord blood privately in the past decade have accessed it. (related: Parents pay to store their babies’ cord blood, but few ever use it)
For further information on cord blood stem cells and donation in Australia, see:
- Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry FAQ sheet
- Stem Cells Australia
- National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia
- How to Donate Cord Blood (Sydney Children’s Hospital)
Donating your cord blood freely to an anonymous patient is a wonderful gift. It is priceless because it may be the only cord blood that is available for life saving treatment for a child or adult with a potentially fatal illness. By donating your baby’s cord blood, “Life can begin twice!”
– Australian Cord Blood Foundation