When the umbilical cord is cut after a baby is born, some of the baby’s blood remains in it and in the placenta. This is whole blood, containing red and white blood cells, blood plasma, and platelets, and it also contains stem cells. These are similar to the stem cells in bone marrow in that they are undifferentiated, and have the potential to fill in for almost any kind of human cell. Unlike bone marrow cells, however, with proper foresight, cord blood stem cells can simply be retrieved from storage, as opposed to the complicated and painful medical procedure involved in obtaining cells from bone marrow.
Foresight is required because cord blood banking, to make the cells available in later life, must be done immediately after birth. If arrangements haven’t been made before labor begins, it may be too late. Collection is painless for mother and child alike; the blood is extracted after birth, whether vaginally or by c-section, from the placenta and umbilical cord, the tissue that had nourished and nurtured the fetus during pregnancy but is otherwise no longer needed after the baby is born. Stem cells derived from cord blood an be used for the baby, are likely to be useable by the immediate family, and may, if made available, benefit people who are less closely related—stem cells are prized for their ability to develop into the recipient’s own blood cells.
Making the cells available means using a public, rather than a private, bank. When done publicly, the cord blood is banked free of charge. This also means that the cell lines will be made available to doctors for the treatment of all patients—for example, for leukemia, which has been shown to be treatable by stem cell lines derived from unrelated donor cord blood—and to researchers seeking to learn more about hereditary and acquired diseases, how they spread, and how they can be treated. By publicly banking their baby’s cord blood, parents can potentially save hundreds of lives, directly or indirectly.
The downside of public banking is that there is no guarantee that the cells can be used to benefit the donor. When children are at risk for conditions that can only be treated with their own stem cells, private banking may be a better option. This is costlier, and the blood is not available for research unless specifically released, but it means that if it is needed by the child, it will be available.