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What is a Cord Blood Transplant?

By Erin J. Hill
Updated May 17, 2024
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A cord blood transplant is a procedure in which the cells taken from an umbilical cord blood shortly after a child’s birth are used to treat certain medical conditions. There are various diseases which are treated using stem cells from cord blood, and new uses for these cells are being developed. Due to the amazing developments in stem cell harvesting and transplantation, cord blood cell transplants are becoming more widely used.

There are over 70 diseases which can be treated with a cord blood transplant. In most cases it is not the blood itself which is transplanted, but portions of it. Plasma, red blood cells, and stem cells are all parts of cord blood which may be used in patients who have an illness. Of them, stem cells are typically considered the most valuable. These cells are similar to bone marrow in that they produce new blood.

During a cord blood transplant, individual cells or the blood itself is given to a recipient who cannot produce these cells correctly. Stem cells produce new blood, so these are typically the most widely used since they treat a wider range of illnesses. Sometimes all cells are transplanted.

Leukemia is the most common illness that is treated using a cord blood transplant. Stem cells found in cord blood can often be used instead of those in bone marrow for cancer patients. Many parents save their child’s blood in private banks for protection against childhood cancer since a patient’s cord blood will always be an exact match.

The use of a cord blood transplant is also preferable over bone marrow in many patients even if they are not related to the blood donor. Bone marrow extraction requires a painful procedure for the donor, while cord blood can be taken painlessly and with no potential harm to the infant donor. Once the cord is cut, a newborn baby no longer needs the blood found in the umbilical cord or placenta.

One downside of cord blood transplant procedures is that they are not as widely available as other methods. Cord blood banking is relatively new, and many parents choose to bank their child’s blood privately for their own use. Public banks are now also available so parents can bank their child’s blood for free, but it is open for use by anyone who needs it.

There is a lot of debate on the usefulness of private banking. The chances of ever needing one’s own cord blood is relatively slim, so many experts believe that the blood could be better put to use in a public bank. In the event that it is needed, however, parents may regret not saving their children’s own blood.

Private banking is expensive and not all families can afford to take part in it. There is generally an up-front fee followed by monthly or yearly payments in order for the blood to be stored. Public banking may be a better option for those who can’t afford this.

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