What is Fetal Cord Blood?

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  • Written By: Amanda Dean
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 10 November 2019
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Fetal cord blood is the blood that remains in the umbilical cord after a baby is born. For many years, this blood was discarded as medical waste along with the placenta. Researchers have discovered that this tissue contains stem cells that can support the blood and blood components. Fetal cord blood can now be frozen and stored by companies to assist a baby or family members who may be helped by bone marrow transplants or stem cell therapies. The blood can also be banked for research and public use.

Developing fetuses begin as fertilized egg cells, which divide at a rapid rate into embryonic stem cells. These cells eventually differentiate to form the different organs and tissues in the baby's body. Stem cells are very flexible and have been proven useful in many medical therapies that require the growth of new tissues. Fetal cord blood contains hematopoietic stem cells that are very similar, but can be used to create blood for the patient or intended donors.

Treatments and research with fetal cord blood are less controversial than ones that use embryonic stem cells. This is because the fetus must grow and mature before this tissue can be harvested. Hemotopoietic stem cells have fewer uses than embryonic stem cells, however. These cells have already begun differentiating into blood cells.


There are many uses for fetal cord blood cells. These cells can substitute bone marrow transplants in cases of lymphoma, leukemia, sickle cell disease, or other blood disorders. Researchers are studying other uses for fetal cord blood, including treatments for type I diabetes and cerebral palsy. Many times, it is difficult to find a bone marrow match, but if a patient's cord blood was stored at birth, there will be no need to find a donor. Siblings are usually good matches for fetal cord blood, or an unrelated recipient may be found in the community.

New parents have the option to store fetal cord blood with private agencies. This option means that the hemotopoietic stem cells are only available for personal or family use. It can be costly to store blood privately since the parents are responsible for the cost of collection, storage, and processing of the tissue. Some programs are available to assist with the cost of fetal cord banking when an immediate family member needs cord blood treatments.

Most experts only recommend private fetal cord banking in cases where a family member has a medical condition or a family history of blood-related illnesses. These are relatively rare. In most cases, this tissue is better used for public donations and research. If this tissue is donated to a public bank, it may or may not be available for personal or familial use in the future.

Parents and people who have had this tissue stored may elect to join a public cord blood registry. Fetal cord blood can be used in more cases than bone marrow since it does not have to be an exact match for the patient's existing bone marrow; however, some degree of matching is necessary. Race and ethnicity are important factors when typing and transplanting hematopoietic blood products. If a public agency is not available to accept the fetal cord blood, parents may have to opt for private banking.



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