updated 4/14/2005 7:16:20 PM ET 2005-04-14T23:16:20

Blood saved from newborns’ umbilical cords could help treat about 11,700 Americans a year with leukemia and other devastating diseases, yet most is routinely thrown away, a panel of influential scientists said Thursday in calling for a tripling of the nation’s supply.

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Cord blood is rich in stem cells, the building blocks that produce blood — the same stem cells that make up the bone-marrow transplants that help many people survive certain cancers and other diseases. When frozen from cord blood shortly after a baby’s birth, stem cells are ready to be thawed and transplanted at a moment’s notice, much easier than traditional bone-marrow donation.

Now the government is preparing to open a national cord blood bank in hopes of providing an adequate supply to find a match for every patient who needs this kind of stem-cell transplant.

Private cord blood banking — in which pregnant women arrange to store their child’s cord blood, for a hefty fee, in case a family member ever needs it — is a booming industry.

Women also can donate, for free, a baby’s cord blood so that anyone can use it.

Many medical groups caution that odds are slim that privately stored cord blood will be used unless certain genetic diseases are common to a family. But because stem cells from cord blood are more easily transplanted into unrelated people than is bone marrow, specialists have long urged a bigger and better coordinated national stockpile.

A better donation system
But public donation is hard for women to learn about: It’s seldom advertised and is offered only at hospitals affiliated with 22 public cord blood banks around the country.

About 100,000 donations from pregnant women in the next few years would be required to set up the bank, on top of the roughly 50,000 cord-blood donations already in stock at different public banks around the country, the Institute of Medicine said Thursday, in a report requested by Congress on how a better national banking system should be established.

Those donations shouldn’t be hard to get, said Kristine Gebbie of Columbia University, a nursing professor and health policy specialist who led the IOM study. Four million U.S. babies are born every year, and most of the umbilical cord blood is simply thrown away.

Key will be ensuring racial and ethnic diversity among the donations, to improve the chances that minority patients who need cord blood-derived stem cells can find a genetically suitable match.

“Done right, this can really improve the public good,” Gebbie said.

It’s a crucial move, said Kathy Conway of Poland, Ohio. Her son, Daniel, nearly died in 2002 of a particularly deadly form of leukemia, one so aggressive that he didn’t have time to wait for the often weekslong search for a bone-marrow donor. It took just days to track down donated cord blood so that Daniel could be treated. Today, at 16, he’s considered cured.

“Some woman — I don’t know who she is or where she is — had a baby girl in January 2000 and donated her cord blood, which was an absolute perfect match for Daniel,” Conway said. “It came to us in this unassuming little syringe, from a mom who had no idea what she was truly doing.”

Among other recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, an independent agency that advises Congress on scientific matters:

  • Create a National Cord Blood Coordinating Center that would allow doctors to make one phone call to find the best match for a patient, regardless of where in the country it was stored.
  • Create policies to ensure pregnant women fully understand their options for cord blood banking and consent to donation.
  • To ensure stem cells are properly tested and kept sterile, create federal quality standards that all cord blood banks, private and public, would have to meet to be accredited. To enforce those rules, the Food and Drug Administration should license cord blood units, something the agency said Thursday it plans to do.

Congress has approved $20 million over two years to establish a national cord blood banking system. The Bush administration is studying the IOM report in determining its next step, a spokesman said Thursday.

Meanwhile, pregnant women who wish to donate their coming child’s cord blood should ask if their hospital participates, Gebbie said. Because it costs the hospital to do the collection, which also requires an extensive discussion of the woman’s medical history, only those affiliated with public cord blood banks offer the option.

Also, the National Marrow Donor Program, which coordinates bone marrow donation as well as a voluntary consortium of public cord blood banks, lists hospitals that participate. Check http://www.marrow.org

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