What is Cord Blood Harvesting?

Marjorie McAtee
Marjorie McAtee
The blood from the umbilical cord of a newborn has valuable stem cells.
The blood from the umbilical cord of a newborn has valuable stem cells.

Cord blood harvesting is a medical procedure that typically allows doctors to save the blood from a baby's umbilical cord immediately after birth. This blood is considered valuable because it is one of three sources of stem cells, and can be used to perform stem cell transplants in children and adults. Cord blood harvesting and banking can make it easier for families to access stem cells for transplants, if necessary. Some families choose to donate cord blood to public cord blood banks, in order to make stem cell transplants easier for others to obtain. A cord blood transplant is generally considered safer than a bone marrow transplant, thought it does carry some unique disadvantages.

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.

When a baby is born, a significant amount of blood generally remains in the umbilical cord, even after the cord is severed. There may be as many as 6.08 fluid ounces (180 ml) of cord blood in the cord at the time of birth. This blood is generally rich in stem cells, and it's believed to be one of only three sources of stem cells available for use in most countries. The other two sources are circulating blood and bone marrow. Cord blood harvesting is the process by which umbilical cord blood is collected, processed, and stored in a cryogenic facility for future use.

Doctors believe that cord blood harvesting can save lives by making stem cell transplants easier to obtain for many. Families who have a history of certain diseases may choose to have their own children's cord blood stored in a private facility for relatives who may need a stem cell transplant in the future. Cord blood harvesting is generally considered safer than bone marrow harvesting, since it is done at birth, after the umbilical cord is severed, and usually poses no risk to mother or child. People who receive cord blood transplants are generally considered less vulnerable to graft-versus-host disease. It is often considered easiest to make a compatible donor match when transplanting cord blood, versus bone marrow, or circulating blood.

Like other transplant procedures, cord blood transplanting carries some risks. This type of transplant may pose some risk of graft-versus-host disease, even though that risk is believed to be lower than with other stem cell transplant methods. Cord blood transplants often don't engraft to the transplant recipient as quickly as bone marrow transplants do, which can leave the recipient vulnerable to life-threatening opportunistic infections for a longer period of time after the procedure. Cord blood can usually only be collected in small amounts, so that the blood from one infant's umbilical cord may not be enough to provide an adequate transplant to an adult of average size.

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    • The blood from the umbilical cord of a newborn has valuable stem cells.
      The blood from the umbilical cord of a newborn has valuable stem cells.
    • 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.