Cord Blood Banks Offer Biological Insurance Policy
Research and Innovations If you think you know about every insurance policy out there, think again. There’s a new one that protects people from debilitating and life-threatening diseases, but you can’t get it through a broker. It’s found in the womb.
During pregnancy, the placenta and umbilical cord serve as a baby’s lifeline to the mother and for centuries now, after birth, these tissues have been routinely discarded as medical waste. But times are changing.
Almost 30 years ago, researchers discovered that the blood that remains in the placenta and umbilical cord after birth is a rich source of stem cells that have the potential to develop into all blood and immune system cell types (red cells, white cells and platelets) and, as a result, can be used to treat dozens of serious diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma, aplastic anemia, and certain metabolic disorders.
“A growing number of parents are choosing to store their baby’s cord blood in private family banks or donate them to a public cord blood bank."
For that reason, a growing number of parents are choosing to store their baby’s cord blood in private family banks or donate them to a public cord blood bank. The public banks collect the blood for free and store it for public use, as long as it meets stringent standards (Canadian Blood Services operates the National Public Cord Blood Bank.) Private banks, also called family banks, charge a fee to store the cord blood for the family to use at a later date if necessary, as a treatment option for a disease that can be treated with stem cell therapy.
“When you donate to a public bank you lose custody of those cord blood stem cells,” says Dr. Clifford Librach, an Associate Professor in the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Toronto, and also Medical Director of the CReATe Cord Blood Bank in Toronto. “But when you bank stem cells with a family bank, you’re keeping them for your child or another family member to potentially use in the future. It’s a kind of biological insurance.”
For example, mixed-race couples would be less likely than others to find cord blood that is a genetic match for their child at a public bank, says Librach. Family banks provide an important alternative that all expecting parents should consider.
Umbilical cord connective tissue is a rich source of special stem cells
"MSCs have been shown to decrease inflammatory reactions and are being investigated for use in treating autoimmune diseases such as Lupus, Type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease and many other conditions where tissues need repair, such as heart disease and stroke."
In addition to storing umbilical cord blood, parents can now also store umbilical cord tissue derived mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). These stem cells can develop into cells that form the basis of cartilage, bone, muscle, fibrous tissue and fat.
MSCs have been shown to decrease inflammatory reactions and are being investigated for use in treating autoimmune diseases such as Lupus, Type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease and many other conditions where tissues need repair, such as heart disease and stroke. In addition, MSCs have been shown to augment some current cord blood cell treatment options.
Public banks don’t store cord tissue MSCs, but some family banks do
“Mesenchymal stem cells fly under the radar of the immune system, so they can be used by the donor’s family members without any risk of rejection,” says Dr. John Davies, the stem cell scientist who created the technology to extract MSCs from the tissue surrounding blood vessels within the umbilical cord. “That is one of the reasons this is so exciting,” says Davies, a professor at the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto.
If current trends continue, we’ll likely be seeing more new parents taking steps to protect their children and other loved ones from blood cancers and other life-threatening illnesses.