Cord Blood Banking vs. Donation—What to do with Those Stem Cells

Umbilical cord blood donation and banking is an especially important topic for Catholic parents, as these stem cells are changing the face of embryonic stem cell research.  With time, it is my prayer that there will be no need for a debate regarding stem cells from aborted fetuses.   Instead, we will be able to use stem cells from donated or banked newborn umbilical cords.

I changed my mind about cord blood and cord tissue banking.  Here’s why.

It seemed like a scam: send your newborn’s umbilical cord blood to a freezer in a far-off state and then pay money every year for it to stay there.  I used to think private cord blood banking was a rather pathetic way to make money off worried expectant parents.  I was bombarded with expensive marking from for-profit cord blood banks, from emails to Facebook ads.

So with our first four children I opted to donate their umbilical cord blood to a public cord blood registry instead of a private bank.  But with our fifth child I changed my mind.

How do you choose between cord blood donation vs. private cord blood banking?  As a pediatrician and a mother of five, here’s how I look at the issue.   Of note, I did not receive any special discounts or payment for writing this article.  

Cord blood banking vs. donation—what to do with those stem cells

A baby’s umbilical cord contains very special “stem” cells that can grow into other kinds of specialized cells, either in the body or in a laboratory.  These cells can be used to treat illnesses where your body needs to regenerate specialized cells.  For example, umbilical cord blood can be used for bone marrow transplantation.  Stem cells from umbilical cord tissue can regenerate nerve, liver, and other specific tissues.

Science is changing.  Treatments that sounded like science-fiction a few years ago are becoming a reality.  Stem cells are currently being used to treat cerebral palsy, and traumatic brain injury. Right now, there are more than 200 clinical research trials worldwide that use stem cells to treat type I diabetes, hearing loss, pediatric stroke, autism, spinal cord injury, HIV, tendon/sports injuries, Alzheimer’s and more.  Scientists in Japan are using stem cells to grow tiny livers that they have transplanted into mice with liver failure.  They hope to grow livers for human transplantation in the next 10 years.  These are conditions for which few other treatments exist.  Nine years ago, when I had my first child, this research didn’t exist.  But we can’t do it without stem cells.

Why pay a few thousand dollars to privately bank your baby’s cord blood when you can donate it for free to a public cord blood registry?  If your child ever gets sick, you can just look for a “match” in the public registry and it should be there, right?  Wrong.

Here’s why we choose private cord blood banking instead of cord blood donation: 

A large percentage of cord blood donations don’t even make it into the public registry’s inventory.  Samples are rejected for many reasons, including concerns about the parents’ or baby’s heath, or the way in which the blood was collected.

Most public registries only store cord blood, not cord tissue.  Cord blood is most useful for treating blood-related cancers such as leukemia.  The stem cells found in cord tissue are far more versatile—they can be used to treat more conditions.  As research in this area grows it is likely that public registries will start banking cord tissue, but for now they only accept cord blood.

Cord blood Inventory has high turnover rate, meaning that your child’s blood may be used for research or to treat an unrelated individual.  If your child needs their cord blood, it might not be there.

A baby’s banked cord blood can often be used to treat other family members, including siblings, parents and grandparents, depending on their genetic make-up.

Cord blood registries are still vitally important, and if you don’t choose private banking, please donate your baby’s cord blood as we did with our first four children.  Some types of leukemia and cancers are best treated with a transplant of cells from an unrelated donor found through a cord blood registry.

Critics of cord blood banking often cite the American Academy of Pediatrics statement on this issue, which supports donation to a cord blood registry rather than private cord blood banking.  This statement, published in 2009, is based on 2007 research data, which is now terribly out of date.  Additionally, this statement cites a statistic that there is a 1/10,000 chance that a banked sample will be used, a number that Dr. Morey Kraus of ViaCord, a private cord blood bank, feels is inaccurate.  He provided separate third-party research that suggests there is about a 1/1666 chance, given uses of cord blood today, that any child will have a disease requiring a stem cell transplant by the time the he or she turns 20 years old.  And the number of diseases that may be treated keeps changing as research advances.

Here’s the bottom line—there are no true statistics that tell parents if cord blood banking is a worthwhile gamble, because no one knows where science will be in one year or ten years.  

Some cord blood banks are now offering storage of stem cells collected from the placenta, too.  It’s hard for expectant parents to determine if this service is worth it for the additional price.  It’s true that additional stem cells can be harvested from the placenta, and this will yield about 10% more cord blood to store compared to the blood collected from the umbilical cord alone.  If cord blood is collected poorly or if the sample is very small (such as with a premature infant), this service may be valuable.

If you are planning delayed cord blood clamping for your infant (as I did), there is still no problem with cord blood banking.  Even after the cord stops pulsing, there is blood left in it that can be collected for banking or donation.

Our fifth child was born in September, and thankfully she is very healthy.  But her stem cells from her cord blood and cord tissue are now safely banked, just in case she or our family needs them.  I am so thankful that I took the time to research this issue and changed my mind.

Copyright 2013 Kathleen Berchelmann, MD

One Comment
  1. Cathy
    November 13, 2013 | Reply

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