The umbilical cord is the connection between a fetus and its mother’s body that provides it with nourishment and enables it to grow and develop. Once the fetus develops a circulatory system, it links to the umbilical cord. The placental blood retained in the umbilical cord once a baby is born contains stem cells from the baby, cells with all the baby’s DNA but which are not adapted to function in any particular organ or type of tissue. These cells are very important; their versatility means they have a number of potential therapeutic applications. Stem cells can in some cases be extracted from bone marrow, but it’s a more involved process. That’s why, more and more, new parents are electing to have the umbilical cord blood collected and preserved for possible future use.
This preservation must be done immediately after birth, which is why parents must make the decision before labor begins. The blood is collected from the placenta and umbilical cord, the same tissue that had been used to nurture the baby during pregnancy. The collection is painless to both mother and child, as the cells are extracted from tissue no longer attached to either as they are unneeded after birth. Once collected, the blood is stored in the same way as—but separate from—other banked blood, and can be used to provide treatment for the baby and the family.
There are public and private banks. Some parents may prefer the public option, because not only are no fees charged for public cord blood collection and storage, the stem cells can be used to benefit others directly and indirectly. Researchers are using cord blood stem cells to learn more about hereditary and acquired diseases, how they spread, and how they can be treated. Moreover, certain serious diseases, such as leukemia and metabolic conditions, can be treated with cord blood from unrelated donors. While publicly banked cord blood cannot be guaranteed to be available to the donor specifically, the more parents there are who choose public banking, the more there is available for everyone.
However, if it is highly likely that the child will need cord blood stem cell therapy, private banking may be the better option. The parents of a two-an-a-half-year-old boy with cerebral palsy had privately banked his cord blood when he was born. When the boy went into cardiac arrest, it caused significant brain damage and left him in a persistent vegetative state. However, after treatment with cord blood stem cells, he was able to speak and move on his own.