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Cord Blood Banking

All about umbilical cord blood collection and storage

During pregnancy, the umbilical cord transfers nutrients and oxygen from mother to fetus, but after birth, it no longer has a function and is often discarded. In the 1970s, however, researchers discovered that umbilical cord blood contained stem cells -- cells capable of becoming any of the three major types of blood cells (red, white, and platelets), as well as other types of cells, such as those that give rise to various organs (heart, liver, brain) and body tissues (muscles, immune tissues).

Given the flexibility of stem cells and their potential uses for treating injuries and illnesses -- even those as serious as spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and cancer -- many new parents have turned to cord blood banking, the process of collecting and storing umbilical cord blood for later use in life-saving treatments if needed.

What Is Cord Blood?

Cord blood, or umbilical cord blood, is the blood left in the umbilical cord and placenta after the baby has been delivered. It is not essential to the mother or baby and is often simply discarded along with the afterbirth.

Why and How Is Cord Blood Collected?

Umbilical cord blood is collected because it contains stem cells, which can become various other types of cells and are therefore useful in treating a number of life-threatening and debilitating injuries and diseases. Umbilical stem cells can be used to treat the baby, a sibling, or another relative (the closer the relative, genetically speaking, the better the chance of success).

Cord blood collection must take place immediately after birth and is usually done by the delivering doctor or midwife. It can also take place after a cesarean section. Collection of cord blood occurs after the baby is delivered, so it is safe and painless and does not affect the actual birthing process. Collection takes about 5 minutes and requires no special tools or training, just a cord blood collection kit, usually provided by the cord blood bank where the sample will be stored.

How and Where Is Cord Blood Stored?

After it has been collected in sterile bags or vials, cord blood must be sent immediately to a cord blood bank, where the stem cells are separated from the other blood matter and then flash-frozen in liquid nitrogen. Cord blood stem cells are then cryogenically stored until such time as they are needed. (Note that while it is generally believed that these cells will be viable forever, no long-term studies have yet been done, since this research and technology is relatively new.)

There are two types of cord blood storage facilities: privately owned cord blood banks and public cord blood banks. Privately owned facilities charge a fee for storage but preserve the stem cells for family use only. Public cord blood banks, on the other hand, may not charge fees, or charge considerably less, but make the cord blood available to anyone it can help.

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