You may have heard that the stem cells in your baby’s umbilical-cord blood can save lives, but if you’re like most people, you have only a vague notion of how stem cells work — or which diseases they can treat. Right now, certain cancers, blood disorders, and immune disorders, among other conditions, are being successfully treated with cord-blood stem cells — and thanks to cord blood research, the list of conditions and diseases that may be treated by these stem cells is growing.
Why is it important to know about the cord blood research and what types of diseases it can treat? Knowing what cord blood can and can’t do may influence your decision to store your baby’s cord blood with a private bank (for your family’s use) or donate it to a public bank. Here are the facts you should keep in mind as you consider private or public cord blood banking:
Cord Blood Basics
Cord blood is the blood left over in your baby’s umbilical cord immediately after birth. (Your practitioner harvests the blood in a quick, easy, and painless procedure.) The reason this blood is so valuable is because it contains hematopoietic stem cells, which are cells that have the ability to develop into any type of specialized cell in the blood and immune system and replace or repair these types of damaged cells throughout the body. That makes cord blood ideal for transplantation — the stem cells mutate and regenerate to form healthy blood and immune cells — and makes it a standard treatment for certain diseases such as cancers, blood disorders, bone-marrow-failure syndromes, metabolic disorders, immune-system deficiencies, and other inherited disorders. Even though bone marrow and circulating blood are also used for transplantation when treating these diseases, cord blood is often a better choice because it doesn’t have to match a patient’s tissue type as closely as donated bone marrow or circulating blood does.
Your baby’s cord blood may be used for your child (known as autologous use) or for a close family member (known as allogeneic use), or it may be donated to a public bank and used by a person unrelated to you who in is in need of a transplant and has a similar tissue type (this is also known as allogeneic use).
Cord Blood’s Benefits Now
Currently, there are over 80 diseases that can be treated and potentially cured with the help of a cord-blood transplant. They include:
- Cancers, including cancers of the blood-immune system (leukemia); those of the lymph system (lymphoma); bone-marrow cancers (multiple myeloma); cancers of the eye (retinoblastoma); and those of the nervous system (neuroblastoma).
- Blood disorders, including many forms of anemias, which are deficiencies or malformations of red blood cells necessary for carrying oxygen to the body.
- Bone-marrow-failure syndromes or deficiencies in the bone marrow. These include red-cell aplasia (a condition in which bone marrow lacks red blood cell precursors) and severe aplastic anemia (when bone marrow doesn’t produce enough new cells to replenish blood cells).
- Metabolic disorders, which are a result of abnormal chemical reactions in the body that disrupt the way it processes energy from food. These conditions include Gaucher’s disease, Hunter syndrome, and Hurler syndrome.
- Immune-system disorders, which prevent the body from fending off infections, such as X-linked immunodeficiency and severe combined immunodeficiency (also known as “bubble boy” disease).
- Other inherited disorders such as osteoporosis.
If you have a family member who has a disease that’s treatable with cord blood now, cord blood research shows that transplants from related donors are more successful than ones from nonrelated donors. Still, experts are divided as to how likely it is that your baby will need his own cord blood to cure a disease he may develop in the future. That’s because many diseases that affect the blood and immune systems (and might be helped by cord-blood stem cells) may already exist in your baby’s cord blood. So, for example, if your child has a genetic form of lymphoma, his cord blood may contain that same genetic mutation and wouldn’t be a feasible transplant option — but matched cord blood from a family member, such as a sibling, could be a treatment option.
Cord Blood Research: Future Treatments
What does the future hold for cord blood? Preliminary and promising research through clinical and experimental trials suggests that the stem cells may be able to treat autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes and lupus, neurological conditions such as cerebral palsy, and Parkinson’s disease, brain and spinal-cord injuries, stroke, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, kidney disease, and breast cancer, among other illnesses. So regardless of whether you choose to donate or privately store your baby’s blood, remember that cord-blood banking is proving to be a rich source of life-saving treatments — now and in the future, as the possibilities of cord blood continue to expand.
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