From yesterday’s medical trash to tomorrow’s biological treasure, cord blood banking is on the rise.
With stem cell treatment of fatal or debilitating illnesses on the rise, banking your newborn’s umbilical cord blood for future stem cell transplantation could save the life of yours or another parent’s child.
Cryopreserving cord blood and tissue from normal newborns is safe for mom and baby, and it doesn't interfere with labor or delivery. After the umbilical cord is cut, delivery room medical staff collect blood and sometimes tissue from the cord and placenta and send it to the family’s choice of banks.
Parents considering the option are faced with two banking choices: public or private.
Public banks are free to the donor family. They hold cord blood for research and for the treatment of any matching individual in need. Private banks are fee-based and store the blood for exclusive use by the donor family.
Cord blood banks worldwide reportedly hold hundreds of thousands of units for the treatment of more than 80 diseases in adults and children, including cancers, genetic diseases, blood disorders, and immune system deficiencies. The Parent’s Guide to Cord Blood Foundation, a repository of information and resources, reports 1 in 217 people in the U.S. will undergo a stem cell transplant by age 70.
A national network of public banks Be The Match says more than 25,000 people worldwide have received cord blood transplants because parents have generously decided to donate to a public bank.
Massachusetts legislation enacted in 2005 requires hospitals to inform all pregnant women in the third trimester of their options.
The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents opting to bank to talk with their doctor as early as possible in the pregnancy and decide whether public or private banking is the best match for the family’s needs.
While the choice is yours, experts such as the AAP are increasingly advocating for public banking.
While publicly banked cord blood is available to matches through a worldwide registry, private banking serves the needs of only the donor family and it has limitations.
“Parents who save their children’s cord blood in private cord blood banks need to be aware that should their child develop leukemia, the child’s stored cord blood already contains premalignant cells and cannot, therefore, be used to treat the child,” the AAP says in its policy statement. “In that case, the cord blood from an unrelated child (an allogeneic transplant) is needed.”
If cost is a consideration, public banks are free.
A sampling of private banks from across the country show they charge an initial fee ranging from about $800 to $2,300 plus, in most cases, an annual maintenance fee.
As an example, one local private bank, New England Cord Blood Bank Inc. in Marlborough, charges a collection and processing fee of $1,349 for cord blood banking and $1,749 for cord blood and tissue banking. The first year of storage is included; thereafter the annual storage fee is $140, according to its website.
In researching the options, parents are also encouraged to consider a banking facility’s quality control and oversight.
According to the AAP, higher quality cord blood increases the potential for a successful stem cell transplant. The collection, evaluation and preservation of publicly banked cord blood is highly regulated by accrediting institutions.
Private banks, AAP says, are less regulated and may not meet stringent best-practices, which could lead to cord blood of a lesser quality.
Three Massachusetts hospitals have public cord blood donation programs in-house.
UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester is credited with creating the first such program in New England.
Hannah Brewster, Clinical Research Assistant UMass Medical School, said donations at the Belmont Street location are sent to a public bank in Florida – Cord for Life.
“The health of the baby and parent are most important,” she said. “It’s the patient’s decision on whether they want to donate, but we give them the option rather than throwing it in the trash.”
Cord blood, she said, was collected from 17 percent of the 4,171 babies delivered at UMass in 2018.
While private banking is not an in-house option at UMass, parents may pre-arrange to have a kit sent to the hospital, which in turn would be mailed to the private bank of choice.
The program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Boston also donates to Cord for Life.
Brigham and Women’s Hospital partners with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for its public Cord Blood Donation Program.
Dana-Farber acts as a donor’s advocate throughout the process of banking or receiving donations.
The Parent’s Guide to Cord Blood Foundation offers a full listing of hospitals with banking programs by state at parentsguidecordblood.org.
If the hospital where you plan to have your baby does not work directly with a bank, you may donate by enrolling in a mail-in program, such as Cord for Life, which has been accepting mail-in donations 2003.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports 4,320 cord blood transplants have occurred in the U.S. between 2012-2016. Further, cord blood may help more people from diverse racial and ethnic communities have a second chance at life. For this, more cord blood is needed from these communities such as: Black and African-American, American Indian and native Alaska, Asian, Hispanic and Latino, native Hawaiian and multiple-race.
To donate to a public bank, mom must be at least 18 years-old; delivering a single baby (no twins or triplets); have no history of Hepatitis B or C, HIV or medication-dependent diabetes requiring insulin; have no organ transplants; no history of cancer other than cured local skin cancer (only simple basal cell or squamous cell) or cervical cancer, and have not received tattoos, non-sterile piercings or acupuncture in the previous 12 months.
Looking ahead, the AAP seeks to educate medical personnel, parents, and the public about the increasing need and uses of cord blood banking.
Clinical trial research, AAP says, may lead to transplants for Alzheimer disease, autism spectrum disorder, diabetes, cerebral palsy, hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy, systemic lupus erythematosus, and systemic sclerosis.
Debbie LaPlaca is a veteran journalist, photographer, and joyful mom of two living in Central Massachusetts.