A cord blood stem cell transplant is a clinical procedure in which a patient is infused with donor stem cells. The donor cells are obtained from leftover blood in the umbilical cord and placenta after a woman gives birth. Cord blood is rich in blood cell-producing components and can be very effective in quickly raising blood cell counts in a sick person. People with bone marrow and blood cancers as well as those with noncancerous blood diseases such as aplastic anemia can benefit greatly from one or more infusions. A person who receives a cord blood stem cell transplant typically needs to remain under careful monitoring either at the hospital or at home for several months to make sure the procedure was successful.
Cord blood contains large quantities of hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs). HSCs are valuable because they are capable of producing both red and white cells as well as other important blood components. Donor cord blood is typically collected shortly after a mother passes her placenta, treated with preservatives, and frozen for later use. Specialists perform multiple tests on donor blood to identify its type, count stem cells, and screen for potential abnormalities.
A patient who needs a cord blood stem cell transplant typically needs to have a central line catheter implanted in his or her chest. The catheter allows for blood and medications to be introduced directly to a large vein in the torso. During the cord blood stem cell transplant, a carefully measured quantity of blood is infused through the central line. Stem cells then make their way into bone marrow cavities, where they implant and begin generating new healthy blood cells.
A patient may need to stay in the hospital for several days or weeks following a transplant, depending on his or her specific condition. Doctors run several daily tests to track the success of a cord blood stem cell transplant. It can take up to two months in some cases for notable increases in blood cell counts to show up on tests, so some patients need to receive regular transfusions in the meantime to prevent complications.
There are risks with any transplant procedure, but cord blood stem cell transplant tends to be one of the safest and most effective techniques. The body is less likely to reject young stem cells from cord blood than bone marrow cells from living donors. In addition, there is little controversy surrounding their use since they are not harvested from embryos but from consenting mothers. Ongoing research into the use and benefits of cord blood stem cells will likely increase their importance in the treatment of blood disorders in the future.