Many pregnant women don’t know they have a painlessly altruistic way to help somebody suffering from serious disease. The blood remaining in the umbilical cord and the placenta are rich in stem cells. Thousands of cord blood stem cell transplants are performed worldwide each year, according to the Cleveland Cord Blood Center.
Cord blood banking means cryogenically storing the umbilical cord after delivery. Some people choose private cord blood banking—that is, they pay to preserve the cord blood for personal or family use. Public cord blood banking means a woman chooses to donate her umbilical cord for anybody who needs it.
Be the Match operates the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) and manages a huge international registry that charts both bone marrow and cord blood donations. Bone marrow transplants are more widely known, but cord blood has the advantage of not needing to be as closely matched to the recipient. Be the Match currently has 12.5 million volunteers registered to donate bone marrow, and 209,000 umbilical cord blood units in its registry.
“A marrow or umbilical cord blood transplant is a potentially life-saving treatment for more than 70 different diseases,” says Del Steckler, RN, BSN, MMA, and cord blood recruitment manager at the NMDP/Be the Match. “Many people with leukemia, lymphoma and sickle cell disease benefit from transplants,” she says. “Other diseases treated include aplastic anemia, myelodysplastic syndrome, inherited immune deficiency disorders and inherited metabolic disorders.”
Cord Blood Cells 101
Unlike embryonic stem cells, which have the ability to turn into many types of cells, cord blood cells turn into different types of blood cells. Currently, the FDA approves cord blood transplants only to treat blood cancers—such as lymphoma and leukemia—and blood and immune disorders, including sickle cell disease.
Since cord blood cells are usually discarded as medical waste after the birth of healthy, full-term babies, the donations are not controversial. The Vatican even endorses cord blood cell donation.
While other treatment applications are still in the early stages, medical researchers are running clinical trials to see if cord blood cells can help other conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and autoimmune deficiency diseases.
How to Donate
Women who want to donate cord blood set up the process well in advance. Prior to delivery, the soon-to-be mother should tell her nurse that she is donating her umbilical cord. The birth will proceed as usual. After the umbilical cord is clamped, medical staff put the blood from the cord and placenta in a sterile bag. It’s transported and stored at the public cord blood bank. Once frozen, cord blood keeps for an indefinite time.
“There is no cost to donate cord blood, and the procedure is safe for moms and babies,” says Steckler.
“Many moms tell us that they don’t even notice the collection taking place.”
Cord blood donation is currently an option in 23 states, according to Be the Match’s list of U.S. cord blood collection hospitals. Virginia does not yet have the necessary facilities. Steckler advises interested expecting parents to complete the Learn if You Can Donate tool at bethematch.org/cord to see if they meet the basic health guidelines.