Cord blood stem cells are undifferentiated stem cells that are present in the blood remaining in the umbilical cord of a baby after childbirth. Undifferentiated stem cells have the capacity to develop into many different cell types, making them a valuable source of cells for various therapies. Cord blood stem cells are highly concentrated in the umbilical cord and can be harvested and frozen after the umbilical cord is removed.
Physicians have used cord blood stem cells to treat anemia and leukemia. These cells can be transplanted into a patient to replenish cells of the blood following treatment for leukemia, a type of cancer. Since the cord blood contains a mixture of stem cells that can develop into many tissues of the body, these cells have the potential to help patients suffering from other diseases, such as Type 1 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and spinal cord injuries. Cord blood stem cells may be able to regenerate tissues damaged by these diseases.
Cord blood stem cells are harvested from the umbilical cord after it is severed, and there is no harm done to the baby. A technician inserts a needle and syringe into the umbilical cord and collects the cells in a bag. The blood is processed to remove the stem cells, and they are then frozen at very low temperatures. Frozen cells are readily available and can be thawed as needed.
Although the umbilical cord is a rich supply of stem cells, the volume of cells collected from one donor may not be enough to provide a benefit to one patient. The physician may choose to transplant the cord blood stem cells from two donors into one recipient. The stem cells are immature, so there is less of a chance that they will be rejected by the recipient. Another option to generate more cells for transplant is to culture the cord blood stem cells in the laboratory. The more cells that are transplanted, the sooner the patient may experience a benefit from this type of therapy.
If parents are interested in harvesting cord blood stem cells from their newborn, arrangements need to be in place a few weeks before the due date. The cells can be stored frozen with a private company, and they would be available to the immediate family should any family member need a transplant. There is an initial harvest fee and an annual storage fee for private banking. Public banking does not involve fees, but the cells would then be available to the public and would no longer be available to the donor family. Regardless of how the cord blood stem cells are banked, they are still a very valuable resource for patient therapy.