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7 things you should know about cord blood banking

Jamie Page and her husband, from Schaumburg, Illinois had been given information about cord blood banking by her doctor, but because neither of them had any family history of any medical condition, it wasn’t something they considered. Yet after her mom urged her to watch a report on TV about it, they had a change of heart and knew they would regret not doing it if they ever needed it – which is exactly what happened.

Just a few weeks after their daughter Harlow was born, doctors found a grapefruit-sized mass blocking her kidney.  They had never seen anything like it, so they didn’t know how to treat it or what the prognosis would be. Three rounds of chemotherapy completely eliminated the tumor, but because it was so aggressive, and it was an unknown type of cancer, doctors decided that a stem cell transplant was the best option to prevent it from coming back.

Today, Harlow is a happy, cancer-free 4-year-old girl. “It’s luck— it’s fate that we happened to hear about this and to do it, and we’re lucky enough to have it,” Page said.

Banking your baby’s cord blood is a big decision. Here are seven things you should consider:

1. It could be life-saving

Umbilical cord blood is an extremely rich source of stem cells that are used to treat more than 80 life threatening diseases and disorders – including cancer, blood disorders, immune system disorders, and genetic diseases. Stem cells can also rebuild the immune system after chemotherapy and be used as an alternative to a bone marrow transplant.

Clinical trials are also exploring the use of stem cells to treat autism, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, and cerebral palsy. “Under the right conditions, they can transform themselves, or they can be transformed into virtually any other type of cell in the human body,” said Dr. Rallie McAllister, author of The Mommy MD Guide to Pregnancy and Birth.

2. But…your baby may never need it

The chances that your baby will have a stem cell transplant by the time he or she is 10 years old is one in 5,000 for donor transplants and one in 10,000 for a transplant using the child’s own cells, according to a study published in the journal Biology of Blood and Marrow Transplant. By age 70, the chances are higher—about one in 200 – but this is because cancer rates increase with age.  

3. It’s not a sure-fire thing

Banking your baby’s cord blood isn’t a total insurance policy. If your baby has leukemia, for example, using his or her own stem cells might not be the best option because “you’re putting in the same immune system that permitted the leukemia to develop in the first place,” according to Dr. Patrick Stiff, director of the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center and the Bone Marrow Transplantation Program at Loyola University Medical Center.  Stiff said the best match would be a transplant from a sibling or from an unrelated donor.

4. There are other options

Finding a bone marrow transplant donor can be difficult particularly for minority and mixed race patients, but because a perfect match isn’t necessary when using cord blood, it’s much easier. “There’s a rare patient now that we can’t find an adequate cord blood donor for,” Stiff said. Private banking is a good idea if one of your children has a disease that could be treated by a sibling’s stem cells, but otherwise, experts recommend donating to public banks instead.

5. Banking is expensive

Cost is another factor to consider when deciding to bank or not. Most banks have an initial investment of approximately $1,500 to 2,000, which covers collection, processing and storage for the first year, in addition to annual storage fees ranging from $100 to $200. It’s also unclear how long cord blood can successfully be stored, so banking could be a costly insurance policy.

6. It might not be enough

For now, the number of stem cells in one unit of cord blood is only enough to treat a child up to 10 years old, according to Martin Smithmyer, founder and CEO of Americord Registry. Yet the future is promising. Americord Registry is currently developing a new technology that would collect up to 10 times more stem cells. In addition, a new technology called StemEx, which is currently being studied in an international clinical trial, would allow cord blood cells to be multiplied so older children and adults could be treated.  

7. Your doctor could be cashing in

According to a survey conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, only 18 percent of pediatricians feel confident discussing the topic with their patients, while some of them are being compensated to do so.

Smithmyer said that although his company does not pay doctors for making referrals, this is a common practice among some of his competitors. Some doctors are paid directly from cord blood banks for referring patients, some work as consultants, while others have alternative arrangements. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends doctors disclose this information to patients, but if yours isn’t up-front, be sure to ask.

Julie Revelant is a freelance writer specializing in parenting, health, and women's issues and a mom. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.

Julie Revelant is a freelance writer and copywriter specializing in parenting, health, healthcare, nutrition, food and women's issues. She’s also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.