What Is Cord Blood Banking?

umbilical cord blood banks
Also Known As Umbilical Cord Banking

Cord blood banking is the collection of blood from the umbilical cord of a baby immediately after childbirth. It is then 'banked' or stored in a special facility called a cord blood bank for possible future use. Cord blood is the blood found in the umbilical cord and placenta which connects an unborn baby to the mother's womb. This special blood contains a rich source of stem cells and, unless collected, is typically discarded with the umbilical cord by hospitals. Stem cells are very versatile cells which can be harvested later in life for possible use in medical treatments for conditions like leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and bone marrow transplants. Stem cells are like master cells which can develop into other cells such as red blood cells, skin or heart muscle cells. They can reproduce copies of themselves almost indefinitely which means eventually, when we have the scientific know-how, they may even be used for growing organs.

Cord blood is usually collected within a few minutes of childbirth and 'deposited' in a cord blood bank. Mothers can arrange to have their baby's blood collected by either a public or private bank. When they use a public bank they essentially donate their child's cord blood to whoever needs it. Private cord banks on the other hand are more like hiring a private safety deposit box and the blood is solely for the use of the child or near relative. Statistically the stem cells have a 1 in 4 chance of also matching a sibling. People who donate to public banks do so to contribute towards scientific research or public care. Donating to a private bank is more about taking an insurance policy out to safeguard your child against possible future illnesses. Naturally the cost of private banking reflects this exclusivity! Mothers will be charged a collection fee and yearly ongoing storage costs.

Private companies describe the practice as a once-in-lifetime opportunity to freeze a spare immune system for your child. Many experts feel this is misleading, as there is currently little evidence to show the benefit of storing stem cells at this point, except for a small number of families with a history of rare genetic blood diseases or bone marrow failure. For most, as the science of stem cell research is still in its infancy, the likelihood of their baby ever needing the stem cells is fairly slim. Some put the odds at 1 in 400, while others say it is as little as 1 in 2,700. If you are considering the process it may be worth talking to a hematologist, a blood doctor, to discuss the possible benefits.

See also these related articles:
How is cord blood collected? For an explanation of the procedure and when it is performed.
How much does cord blood banking cost? Looking at the immediate and ongoing costs involved.

Here For The Long-Term?

At this point in time no-one knows if banking stem cells is going to become standard practice or just a stop-gap measure until scientists learn how to genetically manipulate other cells in the body to behave more like embryo cells (another name for stem cells). If they discover how to reprogram ordinary fat or skin cells so that they behave like stem cells (theoretically for example to grow another arm or leg for an amputee), then cord blood banking will no longer be necessary. Right now, we're a long way from that happening so cord blood banking is here to stay for a while. Research in the area continues and promising results show that it may have the potential to be used as a treatment for heart disease and neurological conditions in the future. Currently it is a $250 million industry in the United States.

picture of storage facilities
Storage Facilities at a Blood Bank

• You might find our section on genetic conditions and genetic tests interesting.
• Got another question? See: Womens Health Questions

Other Useful Questions For Soon to Be Moms
Is a home birth safe?: As an alternative, but cord blood banking can not be carried out if you chose to have your baby at home.
Is an epidural safe?: The pros and cons of using pain-relief medications during childbirth.
Paternity test while pregnant. If there is any doubt about who the daddy might be.
How many cesareans can you have? What do the guidelines say, is there a maximum?

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