The umbilical cord connects an embryo or fetus to the placenta, an organ that allows the baby to get nutrients from its mother. Umbilical cord blood and placenta blood is that which stays in these two organs after childbirth. The blood is valuable because it can be harvested for the stem cells it contains, which have been proven to help treat genetic disorders later in life.
Umbilical cord blood, and the stem cells in it, are used in regenerative medicine, which helps ill patients repair or completely regenerate damaged tissue. A person's own stem cells are a very important part of this therapy because their own stem cells can be absorbed back into their bodies without the risk of rejection.
Unlike many other methods of harvesting stem cells, this is not controversial. The blood contained within the cord is typically thrown away as medical waste if it is not harvested, so the ethics debate that often occurs with other types of stem cell harvesting is usually avoided. In addition, removal of the blood does not hurt the baby. Some critics state that early harvesting of cord blood, however, is actually detrimental to the baby because it may increase the chance of childhood disease.
The method most commonly used to collect cord blood is much like the procedure done when blood is donated. A technician uses a needle to withdraw the blood from the cord, and it is then stored in a blood bag. On average, about 75 milliliters (ml) of blood can be harvested from the umbilical cord.
Collected umbilical cord blood is then frozen and stored in a public or private cord blood bank in case of future need. The cost to harvest and store this blood in a private bank, for personal use, is typically rather expensive. It costs about $2,000 US Dollars (USD) for collection and $125 USD annually to store it privately. This expense prohibits some parents from doing it. According to one study, fewer than .001% of babies with cord blood banked actually use it.
Alternatively, umbilical cord blood can be donated to a public bank for communal use. In cases like these, fees are usually waived. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourages private cord blood banking but encourages public banking. Relicord™ is one of the largest banks with more than 3,500 cord blood samples. It has both public and private facilities.