The real deal on cord blood

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Fifteen minutes. That’s very little time to make a very big decision. Why not sort out the complicated decisions now, so you can direct your attention to your perfect little newborn later?
If you’re anything like me, you’ve heard of cord blood banking in passing, but aren’t really sure what the process entails or what the benefits of it might be. Since my own cord blood wasn’t stored and I had never required any transfusions, I had never spent much time researching it. But when cord blood banking suddenly became relevant for me—much as it will for you as you prepare for the birth of your baby—I knew it was time to hit the books.
The basics
First, I wanted to be clear on just what exactly cord blood is. Pretty self-explanatory, cord blood is exactly what is sounds like: blood that comes from a baby’s umbilical cord. That seemed simple enough, but I was still curious—why the heck is this cord blood so important anyway?
For starters, when your baby is in utero, the blood running through his umbilical cord delivers the nutrients, oxygen and everything else he needs from the placenta directly to him. While this task is obviously crucial to baby’s growth and development, this blood’s importance does not end there.
In fact, the blood in the placenta and umbilical cord is special in that it contains a particularly high number of stem cells, which are the building blocks of the blood and immune system. (It’s important to note that these stem cells are completely distinct from the embryonic stem cells you may have also heard about.) Since these stem cells continuously make copies of themselves and are able to produce every other type of blood cell, they can be transplanted into a body and will transform into whatever cell type that body needs. Pretty cool, huh?
The benefits
Cool, indeed—especially in instances of folks affected by cancers such as leukemia. Leukemia is a cancer of the white blood cells, so the first step in treating it is to destroy the diseased cells. But once those bad cells are destroyed, they need some good ones to replace them and to resume healthy blood cell production. Chemotherapy is usually the first method used to attempt such a feat, but when it strikes out, stem cell transplants are often next at bat. Stem cells are injected into the body, where they get to work reproducing and, in successful transplants, restoring a healthy blood count.
What else might cord blood be useful in treating? As it turns out, a number of different diseases. And more research is being done daily that unveils additional possibilities of ways it can help. Scientists even think that stems cells from cord blood may be used to aid in the treatment of neurological disorders, diabetes, heart disease and spinal cord injuries. For now though, cord blood has been successful in the treatment of sickle cell anemia, immune deficiency disorders, Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and more—over 70 disorders and diseases, in fact!
The collection
So far it was sounding to me like cord blood had as much potential as my soon-to-be son (who would, no doubt, explore outer space, save the whales, and solve world hunger), but I wanted to know how it was going to affect me (and more importantly, my son) right now, not in 10, 20 or 30 years. Would having his cord blood drawn cause either one of us any discomfort?
I was pleased to find that cord blood collection is completely painless. (Phew! The task of squeezing through my birth canal would surely be enough trauma for my little guy to face in one day.) Once the umbilical cord is clamped, blood from it and the placenta are drawn with a syringe and stored in a sterile bag. The whole process only takes five minutes or so. Plus, it doesn’t interrupt or affect the birth process in anyway. As long as the doctor and hospital know of your plans, the procedure should be an easy one. Once the cord blood is collected into a special package, it’s transported to either a private or public bank where it will be frozen and stored.
The storage facility
Since the whole private versus public aspect left me again in unfamiliar territory, I decided to look into it a little more.
Private. To store the cord blood at a private bank, a family pays for the collection and transport of the blood, as well as an annual storage fee. Most insurance policies will not cover these costs, though some will if there is an immediate family member in need who could benefit from a stem cell transplant. If your insurance company is not one of the select few who cover the cost, look into what payment plans or programs a private banking center might be able to offer you. Many will offer free cord blood banking for families in need.
Privately stored cord blood will be available for use at the discretion of the family. In most cases, your baby will not be able to benefit from his own cord blood. (This is because if he suffers from a genetic disorder, as most stem cell-treatable conditions are, the same genetic code that produced the disease to begin with will also be present in the cord blood.) However, siblings have a reasonable likelihood of being a good match—should they ever be in need of a transplant—with a 25 percent chance of compatibility. And ongoing studies and research regarding using one’s own cord blood to treat brain injury, diabetes and other non-genetic disorders have shown the likelihood of a baby benefiting from his own cord blood later in life is greater than you might think.
Public.Although those might not seems like the surest odds, they are better than you might find at a national bank, where the chances are slimmer and the wait is almost certainly longer. These national banks are stocked by public donations centers, which also sell cord blood for research. It’s worth noting that while most public centers are non-profit (and therefore sell units only to cover basic costs), there are also some that are for-profit; so make sure you’re clear on the center’s profit status before you decide to donate. (Of course, you’ll also need to ensure that your preferred donation center works with your chosen hospital. The expense of collecting, testing, freezing, transporting and storing a unit of blood is not insignificant, so many centers have partnerships with only a limited number of hospitals.)
If you choose to donate to a public banking center, your baby’s cord blood may be used for research, or donated to another patient in need. Should one of your baby’s siblings become sick and in need of a transplant, there is a possibility that you’ll be able to get it back—if your baby’s blood is still available. (This is another policy worth researching beforehand!)
The application process
Just as you’ll be checking out the donation center, they’ll be checking you out. In fact, there’s a rather lengthy application process (which is why it’s good to look into this now, instead of in between contractions!). The centers will be interested in not just your family health history, but also any tattoos or piercings you may have had. And the required HIV and hepatitis tests will be paid for out of your pocket.
The decision
Even after all my research, making a decision was not easy. If you’re not currently in need of cord blood and still on the fence about whether or not storing your baby’s cord blood is a wise investment, consider the size of family you are planning. Do you hope to have several children, or just one?
Families with multiple children are more likely to benefit from cord blood than families with one child. Others who have an increased likelihood of benefit include ethnic minorities, who may have a harder time finding a good match from a public center. You’ll also want to take into account your family history. If members of your family have been afflicted by diseases or disorders that can be treated with stem cell transplants, your odds of benefitting from stored cord blood are greater.
Finally, recall the possibility of progressive research. By the time your baby is an adult, discoveries may have been made that will allow him to benefit from his own cord blood, despite the fact that such is currently not the case.
Cord blood banking is a one-time opportunity, and the decision of whether or not to store your baby’s cord blood shouldn’t be taken lightly. Research your options and talk to your doctor about any lingering questions you may have. Remember there’s no right or wrong answer; what to do with your baby’s cord blood is a decision that should be based on what works best for you and your family.

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