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What are Umbilical Stem Cells?

M.R. Anglin
M.R. Anglin

Umbilical stem cells are stem cells that are derived from the umbilical cords of newborns. Stem cells are special cells in the body that have the potential to develop into many other different types of cells. For instance, given the appropriate signals, it is thought that a stem cell can develop into a liver cell. This phenomenon has researchers excited about the potential of these cells to cure various diseases. In fact, stem cell treatment is already being used to treat certain kinds of cancers.

The prospect of being able to treat various diseases, such as leukemia, with umbilical stem cells is an attractive one to researchers. One method to treating a person with leukemia, for instance, is to first kill off the patient’s own stem cells. The donor stem cells can then be injected into the patient, where they can travel to the bone marrow and start making new, normal leukocytes. In many procedures, the stem cells will often have to go through a specialization process before being inserted into a patient so that they cells are ready to develop into the tissue that needs repair. Umbilical stem cells also have the benefit of being less likely to be rejected by the host body.

An umbilical cord is a thick, blood-rich cord that connects a baby to its mother during the gestation process.
An umbilical cord is a thick, blood-rich cord that connects a baby to its mother during the gestation process.

To harvest umbilical stem cells, the umbilical cords must first be collected. After a child is born, the umbilical cord is usually thrown away, but the parents can opt to donate the umbilical cord. Once the cord is collected, the blood, filled with stem cells, is extracted. It is then sent to a laboratory where it is processed. The blood is then stored at about -320°F (approximately -195.56°C) until it is needed.

Umbilical stem cells can be stored in both public banks and private banks. When stored in a public stem cell bank, the cells are used to save the life of anyone who needs them. In contrast, when they are stored in a private bank, the stem cells are stored for the family’s own use, and the price for this can be steep. What is more, the child may never have to use the stem cells. In some cases, such as in the case of some genetic diseases, the child may not even be able to use the stem cells set aside for him because the cells will carry the same disease that the doctors are trying to treat.

Along with advantages there are many disadvantages that are associated with umbilical stem cells. Stem cell research often brings with it ethical concerns, such as whether or not this avenue of research could lead to human cloning. There is also the issue of if an undetected congenital disease is present in the baby’s blood and that blood gets transplanted to another patient. In addition, only a small amount of blood is able to be collected from this method. Often the blood that is harvested is only enough to treat a child, so other sources of stem cells are commonly required when treating adults.

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Discussion Comments


I think it's amazing that those little cells can be used for so many different things. The fact that they are just normal cells that then change into whatever they are needed for is unbelievable!

I don't really understand how it all works, but I am so grateful for the people who spend so much time studying things like human stem cells.


After reading this, I don't think umbilical cords should ever be thrown away. If the cord blood stem cells can be used to cure people of things like cancer, why are we still throwing them away?

I can understand that people should have the right to say no, they don't want their baby's umbilical cord saved -- kind of like you have to give consent for organ donation. But, when I had my babies, no one even asked me if they could store the stem cells in a public bank. I definitely would have agreed, if I knew how greatly those cells could help people.

Those tiny little cells can save lives!


I know some people who stored the stems cells from their baby's umbilical cord, and they told me how much it costs to keep those cells in a private bank. It's expensive! I can't imagine paying all that money for something you hope you never have to use.

Although, I guess it's just a more expensive form of insurance, if you think about it. We pay into insurance all the time, to be used for things that we hope never happen.

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    • An umbilical cord is a thick, blood-rich cord that connects a baby to its mother during the gestation process.
      By: massimo maghenzani
      An umbilical cord is a thick, blood-rich cord that connects a baby to its mother during the gestation process.