Umbilical Cord Blood A Lifesaver

With the help of medical science, a new mother can give the gift of life not only to her own children but to others as well. A study in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine found that donated umbilical cord blood can help save lives. CBS This Morning Health Contributor Dr. Bernadine Healy reports.

During pregnancy, the placenta and umbilical cord, and the blood within them, nourish the fetus. The blood is rich in stem cells, the building blocks of blood that are found in bone marrow.

This blood can now be saved for your child or donated to a cord blood bank to help others fight deadly diseases such as leukemia, Hodgkin's disease, and lymphoma as well as blood disorders, metabolic disorders, and immune system diseases. It's also being tested for use in gene therapy for HIV.

While this type of treatment has been used in adults, transplants of cord blood are mostly for children because it is produced only in small quantities.

The study published in the Journal found that blood taken from newborns' umbilical cords appears to offer a good source of tissue for cancer victims and others who need bone marrow transplants but do not have related donors.

Until recently, there were only two options for a sick child who needed a bone marrow transplant: they could either hope that one of their relatives matched or they could look to the National Bone Marrow Registry for a compatible donor. Unfortunately, bone marrow matches have not been available for everyone. The new study reveals a viable alternative.

No surgery is involved with a cord blood transplantation. Doctors simply inject the blood into the patient's vein.

For cancer patients, stem cells are used to help restore the immune system. They fight the disease and also replace normal blood cells killed by heavy doses of chemotherapy. For patients with weakened immune systems, healthy cord blood helps create the infection fighting cells they lack.

There are several advantages to receiving donated cord blood instead of a bone marrow transplant. Cord blood is:

  • painless for the donors
  • can be stored
  • is easier to match with the patient
  • is easier for the patient's body to accept than donated bone marrow
  • is less expensive a treatment than obtaining bone marrow
Parents who want to have their newborn's cord blood collected, processed, and stored can do so for about $1,000 or more. The blood is a direct match to the child and there is a 50 percent chance that it will match siblings or the mother. However, unless a child in the family already has a disease that requires a transplant, the chances that the blood will ever be needed by a relative are slim, says Dr. Healy.

Currently, the National Institutes of Health encourages mothers to donate their babies' cord blood to banks, just like donated blood. Te option is not available in every community yet, so parents who are interested in donating should ask their doctor or hospital to make arrangements well before their baby is born.

Reported By Dr. Bernadine Healy
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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