Banking Umbilical Cord Blood

CHICAGO ~ When Kimberly Gaston was pregnant with her fourth child and her obstetrician suggested she should consider saving the blood from her baby’s umbilical cord, the young mother did not hesitate.

“It was like a lightbulb went off,” said Gaston.

The 32-year-old had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a year earlier – a thunderbolt that turned her world upside down and convinced her it might be smart to save her son’s stem cell-rich cord blood as a form of “biological insurance.”

“It gave me a sense of security about my children’s future health,” said the young mother from Satellite Beach, Florida.

Like a growing number of Americans, Gaston opted to bank that blood at her own expense, cryo-preserving it at a private US facility for the family’s exclusive use in the event of an unforeseen medical emergency.

If her children don’t need it, Gaston hopes she might be able to make use of it if there is ever a stem cell therapy for multiple sclerosis, a chronic and incurable neurological disease.

Cord blood is a rich source of stem cells, a type of cell that can morph into almost any tissue type in the body and replicate many times over.

Cord blood stem cells have been used therapeutically for more than a decade to treat more than 70 diseases, including many cancers and blood disorders.

But it is the cells’ potential applications in the field of regenerative medicine that is creating much of the buzz.

Researchers are studying how to use these cells to grow new tissue to treat everything from brain and spinal cord injuries to heart disease, diabetes, stroke and Parkinson’s disease.

And it is that promise of stem cell therapy that is driving many to shell out thousands of dollars to preserve their infant’s cord blood.

“Our clients understand that it is a powerful medical resource that they can bank for future and emerging uses,” said Stephen Grant, executive vice president of Cord Blood Registry, one of about 20 private US blood-banking operations.

Last month, Spain’s Princess Letizia and her husband, Crown Prince Felipe de Bourbon, revealed they too had stored the umbilical cords of their two small daughters at a Tucson-based registry.

“It’s something we have great confidence in and believe in. I think science and medicine are moving forward by leaps and bounds in this field and we have to kept abreast of it,” the prince told Spanish media.

Much of the research into stem cell therapies is in its infancy, but industry officials argue parents only have one opportunity to save their child’s genetically unique stem cells.

Those cells, they contend, may save the life of a child or sibling one day, or enable them to take advantage of potential treatments for what are now incurable diseases.

“That promise is rational. It’s real, but when it will happen is purely speculation. It won’t be in the next few years,” said Charles Sims, chairman of the Association of Family Cord Blood Banks, representing eight US private cord blood banks.

But advocates for public cord blood banking suggest most parents would be better off saving the money and falling back on public blood banks in the event of a medical crisis, unless they have another child with a genetic illness or malignancy who could benefit from a transplant.

“I would advise parents to spend the money on a stroller or car seat,” said Dr Bert Lubin, the American Pediatric Association’s spokesman on cord blood banking.

The American Medical Association argues that not only is the promise of stem cell therapies for regenerative medicine unproven, but the chances of a child ever needing a stem cell transplant are slim.

It cites estimates suggesting the likelihood ranges from one in 1,000 to one in 200,000.

Factor in the chance that another family member could use those cells for a transplant if they were a good enough match, and that figure would be more like one in 2,700, according to another estimate.

“The major reason why it’s a big profit industry is that the majority of the units banked – 99 percent of them – have not been used,” said Lubin, an expert on cord blood transplants from Children’s Hospital and Research Centre in Oakland, California.

Cord blood banking customers pay an upfront processing fee ranging from US$1,000 to $2,000, as well as $100-$150 a year for storage fees.

But more and more Americans are opting to spend the money and take the gamble. Industry officials estimate that up to half a million unique blood samples have been banked over the past decade, and the number is growing at between 15 to 25 percent per year.

Most taking up the option are affluent and well-educated. Forty percent of live births in Beverly Hills, home to many of California’s super-rich, generate new business for Cord Blood Registry, a company official said.

But it’s not just those with disposable income who are taking the plunge.

With four kids under 10, and a family income of less than $100,000 a year, it was a “stretch” for Gaston to pay the $1,600 to bank her son Grant’s blood at a facility in Tucson.

But “it’s just good sense to be prepared,” she said. “If I could go back and bank the blood of my other three kids, I would do it in a heartbeat.”

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