Understanding Cord Blood Banking: Simplifying An Often Confusing Subject

If you’re like some of my patients’ parents, a decision regarding cord blood banking can be confusing and tough to navigate. While I know most OB/GYNs discuss this option with their patients, it’s still a difficult topic to understand within the time constraints of a prenatal appointment. As a pediatrician (and a mom), I want my patients’ parents to understand what cord blood banking does and how it can benefit their family, should the need arise.

shutterstock_663728050.jpg

Let’s get back to basics and answer a few technical questions.

  1. What is cord blood?

    • Cord blood is your baby’s blood from the umbilical cord, which is rich in stem cells that can reconstitute into any type of blood cell.

  2. What is cord blood banking?

    • Cord blood banking allows you to store blood stem cells from your newborn’s umbilical cord and placenta for future use.

  3. Why is the cord blood beneficial?

    • Cord blood stem cells can be used to treat a variety of life threatening disorders and conditions.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s dig deeper and discuss why parents need to know cord blood banking is an important option to consider.

As stated above, cord blood stem cells can be lifesaving and lifesaving is a big word when it comes to a child’s well-being. When I talk to parents about cord blood banking, I want them to know why and when they would need to use cord blood. Cord blood is packed with blood stem cells, which are integral in the functioning of the blood and immune systems. Currently, most cord blood is used to treat malignancies (i.e. leukemia), hemoglobinopathies (i.e. sickle cell anemia or aplastic anemia) and immunodeficiencies (i.e. SCID or Severe Combined Immunodeficiency). However, there are current research studies and clinical trials to study the regenerative properties of stem cells and implement them to treat numerous other disorders such as Alzheimer disease, autism, diabetes, cerebral palsy, lupus and more.

So who does cord blood benefit? This is an important question that I think many people don’t necessarily consider. If you have a child that develops leukemia, his/her own cord blood will likely have those pre-cancerous cells, and would therefore not be able to use his/her own cord blood for a stem cell transplantation (to repopulate the body’s bone marrow after it has been destroyed by high doses of chemotherapy). But, if you have two children, your other child’s cord blood is more likely to be a match than a stranger’s stem cells and could therefore possibly used for a stem cell transplant. In essence, you could think of it in the way that you are likely storing your child’s cord blood not for his/her own use but more for a sibling’s use. Again though, there are likely to be advancements in this field that may lead to more and more uses of cord blood in the future.

How does storage work? After the baby is delivered and the cord is cut, the medical provider inserts a needle into the umbilical vein on the cord that’s still attached to the placenta. Remember, the cord is cut at this point, so your baby is already in your arms and not connected to the cord. The blood then drains into a bag which is then sent to the cord blood bank. Here is the important part; I encourage patients to choose public cord blood banking as opposed to private cord blood banking.

A recent study by the American Association of Pediatrics recommended that public cord blood banks were best for collection, processing and usage of cord blood cells. The report states, “On average, cord blood stored in private cord blood banks is (1) underused, (2) not subject to strict regulatory oversight, (3) expensive for the family, and (4) may be of lesser quality (in number and quality of stem cells) than that stored in public cord blood banks. In contrast, cord blood donated to public banks is more commonly used and heavily regulated. Thus, the cost and value of the maintenance of private cord blood banks is not supported by the evidence for use at the present time.”

For a list of public cord blood banks, click here. Your OB/GYN or pediatrician might have options they recommend. My hope is that no one ever has to use the stored cord blood, but for such a potentially life-saving practice, it should be something that is considered. Best case scenario, your family never needs the cord blood and another person in need of the stem cells matches that cord blood and can use it to save their life. As always, I am happy to answer any questions my patients’ parents may have and hope this blog posts starts that conversation.