Stem Cells from Cord Blood – In the New Scientist, the question was posed: “should parents pay to have their child’s cord blood stored or instead donate it to a public cord blood bank?” My answer:
“If the couple already has a child with a life-threatening blood cancer, then banking the cord blood of a healthy newborn sibling is a fine idea, because that blood could save the older child’s life.”
Blood cancers are rare. In fact, a child has only between one in 1,000 and one in 200,000 chance of needing an infusion of his or her own cord blood later in life. The bigger promise advertised by some private banksbettertogive1.gif pivots on the supposed power of cord blood to cure common illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Some advertisements claim future cures for all of these, and may even be used to grow new body parts.
But wait a minute:
“Cord stem cells are scarce, and therefore not useful for most adults, who need large numbers of cells for transplants. Some assert that cord stem cells are powerful because they ignore their bloodline heritage and change into a multiplicity of cell types, including heart muscle and brain tissue. But this is hotly contested, and researchers are slugging it out experimentally, testing whether cord stem cells are as potent as the more optimistic scientists and cord blood banking companies claim.”
I argued that some claims about the therapeutic potential of cord blood were overstated, and that it was wrong to advertise that cures or treatments for complex diseases using cord blood were right around the corner.
The American Medical Association (AMA) has issued ethical guidelines for how physicians should talk to parents about donating their babies’ umbilical cord blood. The vote was clear: mothers should be encouraged to give the blood to public cord blood banks. The guidelines also suggest that doctors obtain the consent to donate before the mother goes into labor, disclose any ties they have to a cord blood bank, and not accept fees for a cord bank referral. In January, the Academy of Pediatrics said parents should consider private storage only if an older sibling has cancer or certain genetic diseases that can be successfully treated with cord blood.
Cord stem cells are powerful: I’ll explain in future posts what science says about the cells, and how research is trying to sort out how these cells can treat disease.
During the holiday season, the spirit of giving in hospitals should take another form. Parents can donate blood to public banks. That would increase the likelihood that a desperately sick child or adult would benefit.