When you’re expecting a baby, one decision you should consider well before delivery is whether or not to save the blood from your baby’s umbilical cord for private storage or donate it for public banking. The umbilical cord blood is rich is embryonic stem cells, which are cells that have the unique ability to renew themselves and to make almost any other type of cell in the body.
“Stem cells may help treat a variety of diseases, such as cancer, anemia and some immune system disorders,” says Sean Daneshmand, MD, an OB-GYN and medical director of the maternal-fetal medicine program at Scripps Clinic. “Adult stem cells are usually collected from bone marrow, but embryonic stem cells are less likely to be rejected by the body than adult cells.”
The process of collecting stem cells from umbilical cord fluid is called cord blood banking. The doctor inserts a needle into the umbilical cord to remove blood, which is then sealed in a bag and sent to a cord blood bank for storage. The process is painless and takes just a few minutes.
Parents who decide to bank their baby’s cord blood have three options for storage:
Any donations made to public cord banks are available to anyone who needs them. The blood also may be used for research. There is no charge to store cord blood at public cord banks. Donating to public banks adds to the supply to potentially help others in the hope of all groups finding a match.
Also known as commercial cord banks, private cord banks store cord blood exclusively for use by the donor and family members. There is a processing fee and an annual storage fee. Insurance does not cover these costs.
A combination of public and private banks, direct-donation banks store cord blood for public and private use. There is no fee.
Whether you choose to bank your baby’s cord blood and where is a personal decision for each family. It may be helpful to understand how cord blood can and cannot be used.
Stem cell transplants using one’s own stem cells (called an autologous transplant) are relatively uncommon. They can’t be used to treat genetic disorders because the stem cells also have the genetic mutation that caused the disease. Even some non-genetic illnesses, such as leukemia, may be present in stem cells from cord blood. In such cases, stem cells would need to come from an unrelated donor who does not have the disorder. Unrelated donor transplants are much more common.
Stem cells recovered from stored cord blood may have a limited lifespan. A 2017 study found that 80% to 100% of stem cells remained effective in cord blood stored up to 23.5 years, but no studies have been done beyond this time frame, according to Dr. Daneshmand.
If you have more than one child, stem cells from one child may be an option if their sibling becomes ill, provided the siblings are not identical twins. Fraternal twins may be able to benefit from each other’s stem cells, since they do not necessarily have the same genetics. However, siblings have only a 25% chance of being a genetic match, so an unrelated donor may still be a better source, Dr. Daneshmand says.
“If you decide to store your baby’s cord blood, make arrangements with your cord blood bank well before your delivery date, and make sure al of your questions are answered,” he says.