Umbilical Cord Blood: A Precious Resource

By Melissa Ramsdell for Your Baby Today

Kathie DiLoreto was pregnant with twins when her doctor discovered a tumor on her ovary during a routine ultrasound. "The doctor said it was a blessing," she says. "If I wasn't pregnant, I wouldn't have known." After surgery and chemotherapy, DiLoreto now is in remission.

When the twins, Dakota and Sierra, were born, DiLoreto and her husband decided to preserve their umbilical cord blood as an insurance policy. If the ovarian cancer ever came back, her doctor explained, the cord blood cells could save DiLoreto's life.

The stem cells, found in umbilical cords and placentas, can form new red and white cells in the body's blood and immune systems, explains Dr. Frank Witter, director of labor and delivery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Stem cell transplants can repair the bone marrow of cancer patients after radiation and chemotherapy. Most often, newborn stem cells are used to treat childhood leukemia in an older sibling, he says. In the future, stem cells could be used as potential treatments for Parkinson's disease and heart disease, Witter adds.

Many hospitals still throw away placentas and umbilical cords, but a handful of companies are helping parents save them. The DiLoretos chose the Philadelphia-based CorCell, which actress Elizabeth Shue used when she had a baby. It's a painless process. In the delivery room, nurses collect a sample after the umbilical cord is cut. The cord blood bank then freezes the sample for at least 10 years. Scientists still do not know how long the stem cells will remain intact while frozen, Witter says, and one power outage could ruin them.

The odds that a typical child might need to use the stem cells before age 18 are slim -- between 1 in 1,000 and 1 in 200,000, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. "The likelihood that these cells would be useful is so remote," Witter says. "It's a better bet that the child is not going to get sick." For that reason, many families prefer to donate to a public cord blood bank.

DiLoreto acknowledges private banks are expensive (about $1,500 up front, plus $100 per year), but she feels it's a valuable investment for her family. "I really do believe they have not discovered half of the things it could be used for," she says. "Who knows what they will come up with in 20 years?"

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