When a baby's born, one of the most exciting moments for new parents is getting to cut the umbilical cord — the tether that has connected mom and baby for nine months of growth and development. One thing new parents might not know is that they have the option of banking the blood from their new baby's umbilical cord. So what is cord-blood banking? It's an amazing feat of science that you and your family can contribute to.
While lots of people know about the different uses for the placenta after birth (including the edible variety), the umbilical cord is often forgotten about. During pregnancy, the umbilical cord is how the fetus gets nourishment from the placenta. Oxygenated blood and nutrients from the placenta are delivered directly to the growing fetus; an exchange that can continue for up to several minutes after the baby is born until the cord is cut. When it's cut, a little stump remains that has to be kept clean by the new parents until it dries up and falls off (usually sometime during the first month after a baby's born). The part of the umbilical cord that the baby doesn't take home with them has traditionally just been disposed of as medical waste. In the last decade or so, scientists have figured out that the umbilical cord is actually anything but waste.
Umbilical cords are most obviously filled with nutrient rich, oxygenated blood — but it's what's inside that you can't see with the naked eye that makes the cord so incredible: stem cells. Science is still learning about all the things these specialized cells can do, but what they're most well-known for is being the "building block" cells that make up the human body itself. Stem cells are not only able to promote the healing of damaged tissue, but they can morph into other types of cells as needed in a process called "differentiation." It's this special talent that makes stem cells so remarkable and sought-after by scientists trying to develop treatments and cures for things like cancer and autism.
The blood and tissue of the umbilical cord is full of stem cells, and many scientists have started advocating for cord blood to be "banked" so that the stem cells can be used. The process of banking the cord blood isn't unlike how we bank pints of blood given at a blood donation drive: the purpose is to be able to keep them for later use and not let such a valuable resource go to waste. Parents can choose to either bank cord blood privately for their own family's use (which can cost several thousand dollars) or donate it to a public storage bank. The only caveat is, families who have certain genetic disorders can't bank cord blood; the same way that people with diseases like HIV are not allowed to donate blood.
Doctors tend to recommend that if parents are interested in and eligible for cord-blood banking that they donate to a public bank. According to the The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, it's extremely unlikely that a child will need their own cord blood (1 in 2,700), but there will certainly be someone, somewhere who can use it, more than likely shortly after its been banked.
A nonprofit group called Be The Match helps to match cord blood with those in need; across all ethnic groups, children whose parents have gone through the registry have found a match 90 percent of the time. Conditions like leukemia, lymphoma, and neuroblastoma, sickle-cell anemia, aplastic anemia, and thalassemia are known to benefit from stem-cell transplants. For adults with these conditions, even more cord-blood donations would be needed to fit the demand.
Since 2005, legislation from the Institute of Medicine has encouraged doctors to educate parents about cord-blood banking, but it isn't federally mandated. Each state has its own regulations (and some states are yet to have any), so it's important to do your research if you think you might be interested in banking your baby's cord blood — either privately or through donation.
The Cord Blood Registry, which was founded in 1992, provides collection kits, processing, and storage, and continues to work on clinical trials to better understand the uses of cord blood in stem cell research. Since information and education about cord-blood banking depends largely on where you live, the best thing you can do if you're interested is to ask your doctor at a prenatal meeting so you understand all your options before your baby is born. Even though cord-blood banking is pretty exciting technology, it kind of pales in comparison to the birth of a baby for most parents — so don't assume you'll remember to ask about cord-banking in the minutes after you meet your new baby for the first time.