There is much debate about the use of embryonic stem cells, but there are several ways to get stem cells that don’t involve the same ethical considerations. One of these is through the blood in umbilical cords, which are commonly simply discarded after a baby’s birth. Cord blood contains lots of stem cells, which may prove extremely useful in curing various diseases and conditions. Scientists believe they have only begun to explore the potential for these stem cells in addressing human disease. Given the need for stem cells, there are many who now consider cord blood donation, and in many countries, there are cord blood banks that may take these donations and use these stem cells to help others.
Two types of saving cord blood can exist. One is banking the blood for potential use for family, the child who is born, or other children in the family at a later point. This option is growing in popularity as people consider the possibly life saving effects of their child’s own cord blood for their family. Banking cord blood for personal use does cost money, and usually involves storage and collection fees, and banks don’t operate in all locations. Some cord blood banks either discount or waive fees for families with a member who may require the cord blood to treat certain illnesses.
Cord blood donation differs from cord blood banking. In this case, people specifically donate the stem cells from the umbilical cord, which means they will generally not have rights to the donation in the future. It is very much like donating blood, when not intended for a family member. Once blood is donated, it is no longer the person’s property.
Thus far, there are not that many cord blood donation banks in various countries, though this is changing. Hospitals may or may not be prepared to take an umbilical cord donation, though people can certainly look for hospitals that do offer this, which can still be rare, even in fairly large states in the US. Like blood donation, cord blood donation is free to the donor, unlike cord blood banking, but the mother of the new baby will need to submit to some blood tests to check for any diseases that might make the stem cells in the blood less useful. Note that the newborn will not need to have these blood tests, and that until that child is born and the cord is cut, there is no hurry to harvest the cord or in any way risk the child’s well-being.
However, once the baby has been born and the placenta delivered, a participating hospital can remove the cord from the placenta, package it, and send it to a cord blood agency, often a blood or marrow donation facility. There may be methods for tracking this blood for personal use with some agencies that accept cord blood donation, but not all samples collected are large enough for use in helping people. When a sample has too few stem cells to be used for treatment, it may be used for experimentation, which can still be of vital help to the medical community.
If interested in donating cord blood or in banking it, pregnant women should speak with their delivering physicians by about the 34th week of pregnancy. It may be necessary to do some online research too, to find hospitals prepared to accept donations or to find cord blood banks. Given the potential uses, it’s likely cord blood banks will increase in number and more hospitals will be able to offer this service in the future.