Unreliable cord blood banks could endanger kids


Umbilical cord blood can be a lifesaving resource, thanks to its wealth of stem cells.

Some parents pay to store their child's cord blood at blood banks in case the stem cells are needed down the road to help treat or cure serious illnesses.

But, says investigative reporter Ginger Allen of CBS station KTVT in Dallas, some of the banks have proven unreliable, potentially putting kids' lives at risk.

Crystal Prince says she "never dreamed" her child would need to be treated with stem cells. "It was just an 'if.' That's what it was."

But the Sunset, Texas resident didn't want to take any chances when her son, Trenton was born. So she decided to save his cord blood, and paid BioBancUSA more than $2,000 to store it for 18 years.

"You're putting your faith in a company that could one day save a family member," Crystal explains.

She didn't give it a second thought -- until her second child, Trinity, was born.

Doctors believe she might have a very serious illness and are running tests but, depending on the diagnosis, Trenton's cord blood could hold the cure.

"Ii have cried and cried over my daughter," Crystal says. "I have prayed and prayed for a miracle."

This summer, Crystal says, she tried to contact BioBancUSA in Monterey, Calif. Crystal says no one answered the phone, and she tried sending emailing and calling at all hours of the day.

"All these questions go through your mind," Crystal notes. " 'Is my blood there? Has the business gone under? Is the cord blood missing?"'

Crystal lives 1,600 miles from the blood bank, so she turned to KTVT for help.

We traveled to Monterey, looking for answers - and found a company in trouble, its offices abandoned.

There was nothing left other than a sign that had been taken down from a wall.

The Food and Drug Administration is charged with regulating companies that store cord blood, but we checked the records and found it had been two years since the FDA had done an inspection of BioBancUSA.

The Department of Health admitted to us there hadn't been a medical director at the company since last October. Because of that, it should have been shut down, and all the blood should have been transported last year!

After KTVT started investigating why regulators hadn't stepped in sooner, the state of California revoked BioBancUSA's license for failing to maintain records, and not monitoring the temperature of storage devices -- all while continuing to collect money from customers.

The state eventually transported the blood to a facility in Los Angeles called Family Cord, which is where KTVT finally located the tank that had Trevor Prince's missing cord blood. Family Cord took possession of the tank from BioBancUSA on Aug. 1.

Cord blood can't be tested unless it's thawed, but once it's thawed, it can't be stored, and must be used immediately.

"In a sense," Allen said, "a person never really knows until it may be time, or too late."

"Exactly," replied Scott Brown, a Family Cord spokesperson. "There is no way to have complete assurance without ruining it."

One person who probably knows how well the tank was maintained is Robert Hayner, owner of BioBancUSA.

KTVT tried to find him at his home in Pebble Beach, Calif., just a few miles from some of the West Coast's most valuable beachfront property. His wife told Allen it "had been a tough two years," and insisted Hayner would return KTVT's call. But he never called. KTVT learned Hayner's company filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, and owes up to $10 million.

And BioBancUSA isn't alone. The FDA shut down at least two cord blood banks over the last two years, and at least one in addition to BioBancUSA went bankrupt.

"I'm very angry for the fact that somebody might have just taken something that could save my daughter's life," an emotional Prince says. "But what will hurt me the worst is losing my child because somebody might have been too careless."

The new company storing the cord blood is testing some control samples in the tank. They'll let parents know if those samples are OK but, again, those parents won't know whether their children's cord blood is viable until they thaw it for actual use.

Family Cord is taking inventory of the tank and testing some control samples that are kept inside these tanks. Family Cord says it should be able to let parents know by the end of the year the results obtained on those samples. The company says samples checked so far appear viable, which could mean the tank is OK.

Some 20 states have a "public option," in which parents donate cord blood that's held for free - but get no guarantees of access to their own child's donated blood should the need arise. Still, some doctors say someone else's blood may actually be better for you than your own child's blood, depending on the situation.