Donated Umbilical Cord Cells Could Save Thousands of Lives

In 2000, a woman donated the blood from her newborn daughter's umbilical cord (search) so scientists could pull precious stem cells from it and freeze them. Two years later, those donated cells saved Kathy Conway's son from leukemia.

"It came to us in this unassuming little syringe, from a mom who had no idea what she was truly doing," said Conway of Poland, Ohio, whose son Daniel is now a healthy 16-year-old.

Blood saved from newborns' umbilical cords could help treat about 11,700 Americans a year with leukemia (search) and other devastating diseases, yet most is routinely discarded, a panel of influential scientists said Thursday.

To build an adequate supply, the nation will need about 100,000 donations from pregnant women in the next few years, on top of the roughly 50,000 cord-blood donations (search) already in stock at different public cord blood banks around the country, the Institute of Medicine concluded.

Those donations shouldn't be hard to get, said Kristine Gebbie of Columbia University, a nursing professor and health policy specialist who led the IOM study. Four million U.S. babies are born every year, and the vast majority of the umbilical cord blood is simply thrown away.

Key will be ensuring racial and ethnic diversity among the donations, to improve the chances that minority patients who need cord blood-derived stem cells can find a genetically suitable match.

"Done right, this can really improve the public good," Gebbie said.

Cord blood is rich in stem cells, the building blocks that produce blood — the same stem cells that make up the bone-marrow transplants that help many people survive certain cancers and other diseases. Freeze stem cells from cord blood shortly after a baby's birth, and they're ready to be thawed and transplanted at a moment's notice, a much easier process than traditional bone-marrow donation.

Private cord blood banking — where pregnant women arrange to store their child's cord blood, for a hefty fee, in case a family member ever needs it — is a booming industry. It's heavily advertised through obstetricians' offices and parents' and pregnancy Web sites and magazines.

Women also can donate, for free, a baby's cord blood so that anyone can use it.

Many medical groups caution that odds are slim that privately stored cord blood will be used unless certain genetic diseases are common to a family. But because stem cells from cord blood are more easily transplanted into unrelated people than is bone marrow, specialists have long urged a bigger and better coordinated national stockpile.

Public donation, however, is hard for women to learn about. It's seldom advertised, and it's offered only at hospitals affiliated with 22 public cord blood banks around the country.

Congress has approved $20 million over two years to establish a national cord blood banking system, and asked the Institute of Medicine — an independent agency that advises Congress on scientific matters — how it should be structured.

Among the report's recommendations:

—Create a National Cord Blood Coordinating Center that would allow doctors to make one phone call to find the best match for a patient, regardless of where in the country it was stored.

—Create policies to ensure pregnant women fully understand their options for cord blood banking and consent to donation.

—To assure stem cells are properly tested and kept sterile, create federal quality standards that all cord blood banks, private and public, would have to meet to be accredited. To enforce those rules, the Food and Drug Administration should license cord blood units, something the agency said Thursday it plans to do.

The Bush administration is studying the recommendations, a spokesman said Thursday.

Meanwhile, pregnant women who wish to donate their coming child's cord blood should ask if their hospital offers the option, Gebbie said. Because it costs the hospital to do the collection, which also requires an extensive report of the woman's medical history, only those hospitals affiliated with public cord blood banks (search) do so.

Also, the National Marrow Donor Program (search), which coordinates bone marrow donation as well as a voluntary consortium of public cord blood banks, lists hospitals that participate with public banks.