Cord blood cells, which are stem cells removed from the umbilical cord and placenta at birth, have several uses in health care. In some cases, cord blood cells can be used to treat many diseases of the blood, bone marrow, metabolic system and immune system, as well as some types of cancer. Cord blood can either be banked for future use by family members, donated for use by other people or donated for research. The baby from whom the donated blood came might be able to use it, but many genetic diseases must be treated with blood from another person.
Cord blood cells help build and repair tissue cells when transplanted. There is less risk of a negative reaction when cord blood is used, compared with bone marrow. It is also easier to find a good match with cord blood than with with bone marrow. Bone marrow donors and recipients must be a very close match, but cord blood donors and recipients don't need to be as close.
The advantage that bone marrow has over cord blood is the number of stem cells available. There isn't much cord blood available per donor, so the number of stem cells is very low. Cord blood cells might also carry genetic diseases that can be passed to the recipient. Not all of these diseases can be tested for, so that is one risk of cord blood transplants.
The most common disease treated with cord blood cells is leukemia. When the donors are unrelated to the recipients, cord blood has been shown to be just as effective as bone marrow at treating leukemia. Cord blood is a good option for those who can't find a bone marrow match.
Cancers other than those of the blood also have been treated successfully using cord blood cells. These include brain, ovarian and testicular cancer. Some of these treatments are experimental but have shown promising results.
Cord blood cells also help treat some bone marrow failure disorders. These include aplastic anemia, congenital cytopenia and pure red cell aplasia. Cord blood also can be used to treat autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and certain types of lupus. There are many more diseases that cord blood cells have been used to treat or could be used to treat.
Another way that cord blood cells are used is in research. Stem cells from cord blood might be able to generate new tissue, such as heart tissue. There is expected to always be a need for cord blood cells for research and disease treatment. Blood from ethnic minorities typically is in particular need.