When Sheila Gannon, from Denver, Colo., was 28 weeks pregnant she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She would need a bone marrow transplant. Unfortunately, not one of her siblings was a match and no one on the national registry was either. That left her one option: cord blood.
After receiving chemotherapy treatments she received her cord blood transplant. “I was not meeting the criteria for cord transplants anywhere in the country, but luckily my oncologist and the doctors at Rocky Mountain Cancer Center developed a new protocol and performed my transplant here,” Gannon says. “In conjunction with transplant, I received five more doses of chemo and eight doses of total body radiation. The actual transplant is an infusion of two vials of blood cells. It only takes a couple of minutes, but it takes between 21 and 28 days for your new stem cells to engraft.”
How is she doing now? “Great!” Gannon says. “I still have to deal with various side effects of the treatment (e.g., nerve damage in my feet, Graft vs. Host disease, etc.). But I have been cancer-free for 15 months! I spend most of my days chasing Sawyer, who will be 2 next month!”
What Is Cord Blood?
Cord blood is the stem-cell-rich blood from the umbilical cord and the placenta. It is either collected before the placenta has been delivered during the birthing procedure, or after the umbilical cord has been detached from the baby.
According to Misty Marchioni, the business development manager for the Community Blood Services cord blood program in New Jersey, the process of donating and collecting a baby’s cord blood is quick and painless.
“At Community Blood Services, we make the registration process as quick as possible,” Marchioni says. “The procedure itself is simple and painless. In our case, once a woman is interested in the cord blood donation program, she needs to register with Community Blood Services. The registration consists of an informed consent and a list of questions, not unlike a questionnaire one would fill out for a blood donation.”
Once this process is completed and the registration is reviewed and approved, the woman is issued a collection kit, Marchioni says. “She brings this kit with her to the hospital,” she says. “After the birth of the baby, the umbilical cord is removed and the collection is performed by the physician. Once collected, the cord blood is labeled and placed back inside the kit and is picked up by a Community Blood Services representative.”
Cord blood stem cells have a higher chance of matching a family member than even the stem cells from bone marrow and, as Gannon can attest to, cord blood can save the life of those outside the family as well.
Why Is Cord Blood so Important?
“Cord blood is a rich source of stem cells – the precursor to all other cells in the body,” Marchioni says. “In other words, stem cells derived from cord blood help make other cells. They have been shown to treat a range of serious, life-threatening diseases. Cord blood is plentiful and routinely discarded at hospitals. A mom-to-be has the option of donating her baby’s cord blood, instead of throwing it away, to possibly save someone’s life. The more diverse the public cord blood bank, and the more donations we receive, the greater chance we have of finding a match and ultimately helping to save someone’s life through a cord blood transplant.”
While donating bone marrow is generally safe, there can be side affects such as headaches, fatigue, flu-like symptoms or muscle pain. With cord blood donations, there are no side affects for anyone.
Dr. Brian Mason, maternal-fetal medicine specialist and director of Clinical Collections for St. Johns Hospital and Medical Center in Detroit, Mich., says that, put simply, cord blood saves lives. “Each year, thousands of children and adults are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases such as leukemia,” Dr. Mason says. “Their only hope for survival may be a transplant.”
Yet 70 percent of these patients will not find a matching donor within their family, Dr. Mason says. “For them, finding an unrelated donor match is the only hope for extending life. Because of the genetic variability within the American population, the more people that donate cord blood, the higher the chances of finding a match. This applies to diversity both amongst and within what we consider ‘races’ or ethnicities. The cord blood they donate could very well save the life of someone they love, or someone they are genetically related to in some way.”
According to Dr. Mason, the healthy donor cells may replace the patient’s diseased cells, giving the patient’s body a chance to produce healthy blood. This saves lives. Many diseases such as lymphomas, aplastic anemia and leukemia can be cured with cord blood stem cells.
How Donation Works
Donations usually include making prior arrangements with the hospital at which you are birthing. If your chosen hospital doesn’t have a cord blood program, talk to your physician, who can put you in touch with local cord blood banking organizations.
“The collection procedure is simple and safe,” says Jan Keersmaekers, supervisor of Cord Blood Collections for St. Johns Hospital and Medical Center. “The blood that is left in the umbilical cord and the placenta after the baby is born is normally discarded. The delivery doctor collects this blood into a collection bag. The collected blood is then processed and stored. It is done after the baby is born, and can in no way affect the baby, who has been removed from the umbilical cord. It does not involve any invasive procedure for the mother, either. The cord and placenta are normally discarded as biomedical waste. This is like turning what would be garbage into gold.”
Couples from all walks of life donate cord blood.
Jennifer Hancock is a mom from Ellenton, Fla., who made the decision to donate her baby’s cord blood instead of banking it for personal use. “When I researched this, I found out some interesting things,” Hancock says. “One, it was very expensive. Two, the odds were that your baby would never use this blood, you would just be paying an insurance policy that you would probably never use. Three, there are uses for cord blood right now and that there are cord blood donation banks that accept cord blood donations. I am an organ donor and feel very strongly that donating needed body parts and materials to people who can make good use of them is a moral thing to do, so I was immediately attracted to the idea. It just seems selfish and wasteful to spend a lot of many to save something for yourself that you will probably never use but that could save the lives of other children today.”
Hancock was immediately attracted to the idea of donating her baby’s cord blood. It took her quite some time to locate a blood bank that accepted cord blood donations near where she lived. They eventually found one in Florida and contacted them for more information, but in their case, they had to collect the blood on their own.
“I have to admit, the process of collection, and basically getting the blood to the bank, seemed daunting,” Hancock says. “We wanted to donate, but weren’t sure we would be in a state of mind to follow through on the process involved, as it is time sensitive. It was also questionable whether there would be enough cord blood to make it worthwhile. We eventually decided it was simply the right thing to do for moral reasons. We are Humanists, so we feel that since we have the ability to help someone through a cord blood donation, we have a moral responsibility to help them by donating that blood.”
The Many Uses of Cord Blood
- It can be used as a type of insurance policy against illnesses requiring a bone marrow transplant. Couples can bank their baby’s blood for future use in case the child or someone else in the immediate family contracts a life-threatening disease that requires a transplant.
- It can be used for research. Stem cell research has been an ongoing cultural sore spot. Cord blood is a non-controversial way to obtain cord blood for the vitally important research scientists are conducting.
- It can be used to save the life of a stranger.