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Banking Baby’s Blood

Donating umbilical cord blood may save someone’s life

In the joyous moments following a baby’s birth, the umbilical cord is cut and the precious bundle placed in parents’ arms. It would seem that the job of the umbilical cord — so critical prior to the newborn’s birth — is done. Or is it?

The majority of umbilical cords are thrown away as medical waste. But the stem cells in the blood of an umbilical cord can save the life of a child or adult with leukemia, lymphoma, immune deficiencies or genetic blood and metabolic disorders. Luckily, expectant mothers in Michigan have an alternative to the medical wastebasket and the chance to save a life — donation to the Michigan Blood Cord Blood Bank.

“When you donate to a public bank like ours, the blood can be used for anyone in the world,” explains Krista Allers, Michigan Blood‘s Cord Blood Bank coordinator. “You’re not saving it for yourself, like with a private bank. You’re doing this out of the goodness of your heart, for someone else. It’s a wonderful thing to do.”

Why is cord blood so special? Because it has stem cells in it (not the same cells as controversial embryonic stem cells), and those stem cells can be used in bone marrow transplants. Cord blood stem cells work better than stem cells from adult donors because they’re less “fussy” when it comes to tissue-type matching. They can match more recipients, decreasing rejection and increasing the number of matches. Cord blood donation is also less invasive and painful than traditional bone marrow donation, and it involves a quick turnaround, since it’s waiting in a bank for those who need it, instead of inside of a prospective donor.

And the process is safe for mothers and babies, too, since it requires only a blood test before collection.

“The simple blood test poses the same risk as any other blood test or draw during pregnancy during routine labs, including pain from the needle, and a slight risk of infection or bruising,” says Dr. Jennifer Carman, an obstetrician and gynecologist who delivers babies at Bronson Methodist Hospital.

There are private entities that also will bank cord blood, offering parents the opportunity to bank a child’s cord blood for an initial fee (usually between $1,500 and $2,500) and an annual upkeep fee (usually $100). The private blood banking industry has been criticized by the American Academy of Pediatrics, though, for being exploitative — most likely, the Academy says, a baby will never need its own stem cells, and if a child has leukemia or lymphoma, most likely their stem cells would also carry the disease.

Instead, the AAP recommends that parents choose the public banking of cord blood stem cells, so healthy stem cells can be used to treat sick children and adults. Michigan Blood, an independent, nonprofit blood bank serving more than 40 hospitals in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, offers a public bank option for Michigan mothers.

Carman says that one of the most frequent questions she gets as a doctor is whether or not the cord blood can be used by the family if needed.

“From what I understand, the cord blood is made available to anyone who may need it, but it can go back to the family if medically indicated and still available,” she says.

The Michigan Blood Cord Blood Bank was the state’s only public cord blood bank when it opened in 1999 and is one of only 20 cord blood banks in the country, providing a rare opportunity for Southwest Michigan parents to donate to a public cord blood bank locally.

Since its start, the Michigan Blood Cord Blood Bank has collected more than 3,600 cord blood units. About 150 of those units have been used in lifesaving donations to children and adults around the world, from the U.S. to Italy to New Zealand.

In order to take part in the public cord blood bank, prospective donors must complete a preliminary screening, either online at MIBlood.org or over the phone by calling 866-MIBLOOD. After the screening, Michigan Blood will send out a donation kit. Prospective donors will need to bring the completed paperwork to a doctor or a nurse and have blood drawn for testing. After the blood test is completed, Michigan Blood coordinates with the hospital staff to collect and freeze the umbilical cord after birth. Mothers who give birth via C-section may also donate cord blood.

For more information, visit MIBlood.org/donating-cord-blood.

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Why is cord blood so special?

Because it has stem cells in it (not the same cells as controversial embryonic stem cells), and those stem cells can be used in bone marrow transplants. Cord blood stem cells work better than stem cells from adult donors because they’re less “fussy” when it comes to tissue-type matching. They can match more recipients, decreasing rejection and increasing the number of matches. Cord blood donation is also less invasive and painful than traditional bone marrow donation, and it involves a quick turnaround, since it’s waiting in a bank for those who need it, instead of inside of a prospective donor.