HEALTH mattersIf you are pregnant you’ve probably heard about the possibility of banking the blood from your baby’s umbilical cord after delivery. It’s become pretty common and it’s more than just a fad. The blood from a baby’s umbilical cord contains stem cells and stem cells can save lives. These are not the embryonic stem cells found in fetuses that have caused a hotly debated ethical controversy. Instead, these stem cells are found in the umbilical cord, which is usually discarded with the placenta after delivery.
Today more than 70 diseases are being treated using stem cells and the possibilities for these remarkable cells keep growing. I’m not alone when I tell you that in the future stem cells will be used to cure and treat diseases now fatal or disabling. Stem cell discoveries in the 21st century will be like the antibiotic boom in the last century.
The reason for the explosion in stem cell research is because these cells have the remarkable ability to develop into almost any type of cell in the body. It’s a complicated process, but after years of successful research, stem cells are now considered standard therapy in the treatment of many serious diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma, some bone marrow diseases like multiple myeloma and some immune system diseases. And the list is growing. There is aggressive research under way to find out if stem cells can be used to treat diseases like diabetes, lupus, cerebral palsy and many others.
But there is a catch. In order for cord blood stem cells to be available, parents have to make the decision to save their baby’s cord blood. The process is completely painless to the baby and there are no risks since the cells are collected after the placenta has separated from the uterus. The stem cells are then shipped to a special cord blood bank, processed and frozen. A small amount of the mother’s blood is also collected.
Stem cells can be banked for private use or donated for public use. There are pros and cons to each.
Private banking preserves your child’s stem cells so they will be available for your family’s personal use if the need arises. There are many private banks available and all charge a fee for initial collection, testing and freezing. The typical fee is between $1,500 and $2,500. There is also a yearly storage fee of about $125. Cells must be handled and stored by very strict standards so that they can remain healthy and usable. For that reason it’s important to make sure the bank you choose has been checked and approved by the American Association of Blood Banking or Foundation for the Accreditation of Cellular Therapy.
Many people choose private banking because they think it might be used one day for the child or an ill relative. But the American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that "the chances of a child needing his or her own cord blood stem cells in the future are estimated to range from one in 1,000 to one in 200,000." In some diseases the cells won’t be able to be used because the donor’s stem cells carry the disease.
The AAP advises private banking only for people who have a child with a condition that might one day be treated by stem cells. For everyone else it advises donating to a public bank.
Public banks collect, process, freeze and store cord blood stem cells free of charge. These cells are available for use by anyone who needs them and is a "match." The more people who donate cord blood to public banks, the greater the chance of someone finding a match. Once you donate to a public bank your child’s cells are no longer reserved just for use by your family. Your baby’s cord blood could be used to help a man, woman or child you will never meet, but who will have a chance at better health or longer life. Public banks are maintained by the National Marrow Donor Program (www.marrow.org). If you wish to donate your child’s cord blood, you must deliver in a hospital that participates in a public banking program. Fortunately, most of the hospitals in and around Chicago participate, but it is critical that you make the decision before you deliver because in Illinois you must request a collection kit at least four weeks before your due date. You should share your decision with your doctor.
Being a donor is a very private decision, but I want to make a very public plea to all parents to strongly consider this option. Your decision could save someone’s life. What an incredible gift.
ResourceMore information can be found on an excellent Web site started by a parent whose daughter died of cancer many years ago, http://parentsguidecordblood.org
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