There is only a 0.04% chance that your child will need to rely on his or her own preserved umbilical cord blood for a life-saving procedure. This statistic was published 10 years ago, but science does not stand still. So, before you dismiss the idea of cord blood banking, remember that there is more to the unassuming, rubbery funiculus umbilicalis than meets the eye…
Why the cord is such a big deal.
The umbilical cord is unique because its residual blood is both well-stocked with stem cells and is easily accessible. Every pluripotent or stem cell found in cord blood has the ability to become one of many types of blood cells that are necessary for normal health. These cells morph into other types of cells based on the body’s requirements. Physicians have known about the curative properties of cord blood since the 80’s when a boy in France who was suffering from the debilitating and deadly Fanconi anemia received a cord blood cell transplant from his sister as an alternative to bone marrow transplant. He lived happily ever after. Since that time, the use of cord blood has been extended to many other blood disorders. Recently, scientists discovered another type of useful cells called mesenchymal stem cells in cord tissues. These cells can be used to treat problems not related to blood, such as brain injury and cerebral palsy. Many clinical trials are currently underway to probe the power of these cord tissue cells in diverse areas ranging from autism to immune disorders. While the data on these therapies are still preliminary, it seems like cord blood and tissue banking can be useful for a whole slew of health issues, not just for rare blood disorders.
Your own cord cells are the best.
If you ever need a transplant, receiving one from your own tissues is the best case scenario. Your body will not reject the new tissue and, in the case of cord stem cells, they will replace the defective cells unhindered. That is why so many parents choose to freeze their kids’ cord blood and tissue for private use. It works like insurance for an unlikely but devastating event.
If your loved one receives a cord stem cell transplant from an unrelated donor, his or her odds of success will be about the same as with traditional treatments like a bone marrow transplant. Why is that? The reason stem cells can turn into many types of cells is that they are immature. This is their main downfall; it is more difficult for them to blend with foreign tissues and to start doing their job. There is, however, a great advantage to stem cells – due to their immaturity, these cells are less recognizable to the recipient’s immune system. Therefore, there is less rejection and graft-vs-host-disease. So, even though cord cells give outcomes similar to traditional tissue transplants, they are often preferred because the donor does not need to be fully matched to the recipient.
A close relative’s cord cells are second best.
Given the low probability of ever needing one’s own cord blood, many experts do not recommend banking it for personal use. However, there is a number of cases where it makes good sense. If your unborn baby has been diagnosed with a rare disorder that can be treated or cured by cord stem cells, you would be smart to bank them. Similarly, if a certain genetic condition runs in your family, your odds of benefiting from a stem cells transplant rise dramatically. Family member banking is recommended if a sibling or another close relative can benefit from stem cells based on the family’s medical history.
Freezing and thawing is OK… to a degree.
Cold-temperature (cryo) preservation of human tissue is tricky business. Before your baby’s cord blood and tissue makes it into liquid nitrogen, it must be processed. This involves keeping bacteria out of the sample, removing all unnecessary blood cells and debris and adding a special solvent to prevent the stem cells from damage as they freeze. Then, there is the thawing process. Bringing the cells back to life requires a careful thaw and wash to remove the toxic solvent. The good news is – with modern technology previously frozen cord stem cells are as viable as fresh ones. Still, many researchers believe that banking stem cells longer than 10 years is not worth it. The quality of the samples declines after that point.
Time is of the essence.
When your baby’s cord blood and tissue are collected, the sample will contain a finite number of the precious stem cells. As your child grows, his or her supply of cord cells does not. It is worth noting that the success of a stem cell transplant is extremely dependent on the quantity of cells in relation to the patient’s body mass. The smaller the child, the higher the odds of success will be. Keeping that cord blood frozen for decades will not give you any advantage over other mortals.
Let’s talk money.
Private cord blood banking is not cheap. If you wish to preserve your baby’s cord tissue as well, the price tag will be even steeper. Banks will offer you a choice of annual storage fees and a package deal for 10 to 18 years of storage. Considering the current options in Canada, you are looking at $2000-3200 in the first year to preserve your baby’s cord blood and tissue. Thereafter, you will pay $250-350 per year in storage fees. You can also pre-pay for 18 years of storage and it will cost you $4000-7000 for both blood and cord tissue.
Public vs. private banking.
If you are not convinced that cord blood banking is worth the investment, consider donating your baby’s cord blood and tissue to a public bank. In Canada this can be done through Canadian Blood Services. At the moment, the only facility in Ottawa where such donations are accepted is the General Hospital. The stem cells collected from your sample may prove to be life-changing for someone. Conversely, you or your loved ones may benefit from a generous stem cell donation at one point in time. Hybrid banks also exist, but not in Canada. They provide stem cells for the public and for research, but also preserve samples for private use. These banks typically have lower fees.
I hope this crash course in cord blood banking gave you some useful information. This way you, as a new or expecting parent, can ask the right questions when decision time comes!