Umbilical cord blood

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Umbilical cord blood (also called cord blood) is the blood in the umbilical cord and placenta after your baby is born and the cord is cut. The umbilical cord is the cord that connects your baby to the placenta. The placenta grows in your uterus (womb) and supplies your baby with food and oxygen through the umbilical cord.

Cord blood contains stem cells. These are cells that can grow into specific kinds of cells in your body. Stem cells may be used to treat some diseases, like some forms of cancer and anemia. Anemia is when you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to the rest of your body.

Sometimes cord blood is discarded along with the umbilical cord and the placenta after a baby is born. But some people want to store or donate cord blood (also called banking cord blood) so it can be used later to treat diseases.

How are stem cells used to treat diseases? 

In most healthy people, bone marrow makes stem cells. Bone marrow is the soft, fatty tissue inside your bones. But sometimes a person’s bone marrow stops working and doesn’t make enough healthy stem cells. And for people with conditions like cancer, some treatments like chemotherapy or radiation can kill healthy stem cells.

If a person needs new stem cells, he may be able to get a stem cell transplant from cord blood or regular blood. Or he may be able to get a bone marrow transplant. New stem cells from the transplant can go on to make new, healthy cells. 

What are your options for storing your baby’s cord blood? 

If you’re thinking about banking your baby’s cord blood, talk to your health care provider. You have two main options:

  1. Donate to a public cord blood bank. For most families, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends donating cord blood to a public cord blood bank. This donation is used for research or to help others. There’s no cost to you to donate. If you or a family member ever needs cord blood, you can’t use the cord blood you donated. But you may be able to use cord blood donated by others. The National Marrow Donor Program’s Be the Match helps families find cord blood if they need it. Several cord blood banks participate in this program.

    The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees all public cord blood banks. This means that all public cord blood banks follow the same standards and safety measures for collecting and storing cord blood. The Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act helps increase cord blood banking at public banks. This law helps public banks store more cord blood and match more patients.
  2. Store in a private cord blood bank. You can store your baby’s cord blood at a private cord blood bank so it’s there in case your baby or a family member ever needs it. This may be a good option for you if you have a child or family with a health condition that may need to be treated with a stem cell transplant. Depending on the bank you choose, the cost is about $2,000, plus a yearly fee of about $125. The chances that your baby or a family member may need to use your stored cord blood are very low – about 1 in 2,700.

    Private cord blood banks must register with the FDA, but they don’t have to follow the same standards and safety measures as public cord blood banks. They may try to persuade parents to store their baby’s cord blood because they’ll need it some day. Again, the chances that you’ll need to use your baby’s cord blood later are very low. 

If you choose not to donate or store your baby’s cord blood, it is discarded after your baby is born. 

What are the benefits of stem cells from cord blood? 

Stem cells from cord blood may have greater benefits compared to stem cells from bone marrow or blood. These include:

  • Safe, easy collection. Collecting stem cells from cord blood has no risks for you or your baby. But to donate bone marrow, you have to have a procedure that requires anesthesia. Anesthesia is medicine that lessens or prevents pain. You may feel some pain after the procedure, and there’s a small risk of complications. If you donate stem cells from blood, you have to have several shots. This can cause bone pain, muscle aches or other side effects. 
  • More matches. Stem cell transplants from bone marrow or blood need to have an almost perfect match of certain proteins in the donor and the person who gets the stem cells. It can be hard to find the right match. Stem cells from cord blood can work even if some of the proteins don’t match. This means that more people may be able to find a match using cord blood. 
  • Ready to use. Cord blood doesn’t need much processing time. Once it gets to the cord blood bank, it’s ready for use pretty quickly. With bone marrow, it can take time to find a match and collect a sample. 
  • Better chance of transplant success. People who have stem cell transplants from cord blood may be less likely to have problems or infections after the transplant than those who have bone marrow transplants. Some studies suggest that cord blood stem cells may create more new blood cells than bone marrow. 

There are a few disadvantages to using stem cells from cord blood. The umbilical cord contains a small amount of cord blood. Sometimes there isn’t enough for a stem cell transplant into an older child or adult. Also, stem cells from cord blood may take longer to start making blood cells than stem cells from bone marrow stem cells.

When do you need to decide about storing your baby’s cord blood? 

It’s best to talk to your health care provider about your cord blood options at around 28 to 34 weeks of pregnancy. This gives you plenty of time to find out about different cord blood banks.

Put your decision about cord blood on your birth plan. A birth plan is a set of instructions you make about your baby’s birth. It can include things like where you want to have your baby and who you want to be with you during labor and birth. The March of Dimes birth plan includes a question about storing umbilical cord blood.

Not all hospitals let you donate cord blood to a public bank. Visit the National Marrow Donor Program to see a list of hospitals that do.  

How is cord blood collected? 

If you decide to store your baby’s cord blood, your provider collects it right after your baby is born. It doesn’t matter if you have a vaginal or cesarean birth (also called c-section). A c-section is surgery in which your baby is born through a cut that your doctor makes in your belly and uterus. 

Your provider usually uses a collection kit that you order from the cord blood bank. To collect the cord blood, your provider clamps the umbilical cord on one side and uses a needle to draw out the blood. The blood is collected in a bag and then sent to the cord blood bank.  

What types of health conditions can be treated with stem cells? 

Each year in the United States, more than 10,000 people are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases that may be treated with a stem cell transplant. These conditions include:

  • Blood cancers, like leukemia and lymphoma 
  • Bone marrow diseases, like Fanconi anemia 
  • Certain anemias, like sickle cell disease, aplastic anemia and thalassemia 
  • Certain immune system problems, like severe combined immune deficiency (also called SCID)
  • Inherited metabolism problems, such as Hurler syndrome and leukodystrophies 

Scientists are studying whether or not cord blood can be used to treat other diseases and health conditions, like cerebral palsy, brain injuries, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.

Last reviewed: June, 2014