Cord blood saving lives

Grayson Ommert is less than a day old, but he’s already a hero. The infant and his mother, Suzanne, donated their umbilical cord blood after he was born.

What used to be discarded afterbirth, the blood from a mother’s placenta and umbilical cord is now being used as a potentially life-saving treatment for patients around the world.

“When Grayson was born we donated the blood from the umbilical cord he was connected to me with, and they used that to hopefully heal other children who are sick with different types of cancers,” Ommert said.

Cord blood is really unique because you can collect it, save it and use it years later to transplant to a patient who suffers from cancer or rare genetic disorders.

Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg has been a pioneer in using cord blood as a treatment for decades. In 1993 she performed the world's first cord blood transplant at Duke University Medical Center.

The stem cells that exist in the cord blood can be critical components in life-saving procedures that used to require bone marrow donations. Kurtzberg says a major advantage is, that unlike bone marrow, cord blood doesn't have to match completely.  So people who can't be matched with a donor - which can be more than half of the people on transplant lists, can use a cord blood donor.

It helps patients suffering from Leukemia, sickle cell anemia, other blood disorders and immune and metabolic disorders. It even can change the life of patients who were injured during childbirth.

Kurtzberg is quick to point out that treatments and research using stem cells in cord blood are completely different than the often controversial stem cell research using embryonic cells.

“When people use the word stem cell it has a lot of different meanings to a lot of different people -- and it's not a word that everybody understands the same way. Cord blood is not an embryonic cell. Cord blood is a mature cell that is in the blood of a newborn baby and likewise in the placenta that comes from a new born baby and they're younger than the blood as children or adults but they're definitely not embryonic cells,” Kurtzberg said.

Although researchers have been studying cord blood for decades, more new mothers are starting to learn about the benefits and the process. There are about 20 public banks that take donations across the countries, with more than 140 public banks worldwide.

“People that have trained, they’re much better collectors,” Deb Wood, the collections training coordinator at Rex Healthcare in Raleigh, North Carolina said.

“I train people that affiliate with Duke, there is a lot of interest around the nation. We do have a program that if a mom would like to donate and their hospital doesn’t – they can have a kit. It’s in the beginning stages,” she said.

Woods is talking about a new program developed by the Carolinas Cord Blood Bank. If expectant mothers deliver at hospitals that don’t have a collector on site, moms can request a “kit” to be delivered to the hospital.

Doctors and non-collecting hospitals can then safely preserve and ship the placenta and cord to the bank at Duke for processing.

Families who receive the cord blood transfusions are seeing amazing results. Lynnette Perez and Kenneth Zapata from Puerto Rico have been practically living at Duke University Medical Center after both of their children were diagnosed with a rare metabolic disease called Hurler Syndrome. Their bodies can’t produce an enzyme to break down sugar, causing severe organ damage.

“It's a rare disease that can affect all of your organs in your body including your brain, your lungs and heart. And the damage is irreversible,” Perez said.

Both Zapata children were given a grim prognosis and five years to live, but have seen their condition improve after receiving cord blood transfusions.

Three-month-old Matthew is undergoing his infusion from cord blood donations at Duke now.  He’s got a long battle ahead with three months of hospitalization after transfusions and chemotherapy,  but doctors hope he’ll have a normal life. His older sister, Adriana, has already surpassed expectations after her infusion more than four years ago. She’s excited to start school in September.

“We feel very blessed about everything,” Perez said. “She can go to school in September and she can be a normal child -- with some difficulties, but she is doing well right now. [Matthew’s] transplant was so early, maybe he doesn't have too much damage and he can develop like a normal child, too.”

Families also have the private banking option. For a fee, a private cord blood bank will collect, process and freeze your baby's umbilical cord blood for your family's future medical use only.

Private cord blood banks charge an enrollment and storage fee which ranges from about $800 to $2,500. Families also pay an annual storage fee which can cost around $100 depending on the bank.  Unlike a public bank, this guarantees your sample will exclusively be used for your family.