Freezing cord blood seems to be a new fad nowadays for parents who just want to be absolutely sure about their child’s health and well-being. The process basically just involves extracting blood from the umbilical cord and placenta shortly after childbirth. The extracted blood is then saved for possible future use.
This procedure has become so popular that there are now advertisements for family cord blood banks in hospitals, as well as websites dedicated to their promotion. However, there are also those who deem cord blood extraction unnecessary, at least for now.
The information you might get from sites all over can be overwhelming and so here, we’ll run you through all the basics of cord blood banking and preservation to help you determine if it’s a service you want to opt for.
15 On Stem Cells
People freeze their kids’ cord blood because it contains stem cells. Stem cells are not like your usual blood cells. For instance, your liver cells contain all the same DNA as your other cells but, in essence, can only perform the functions that liver cells do. It can hardly turn into a nerve cell or a kidney cell. A stem cell, on the other hand, are undifferentiated cells that can still transform into any type of cell possible. The particular kind of stem cells found in the blood are called perinatal stem cells.
14 Work to be Done
Creating all kinds of cells with stem cells is still all in theory, though. It’s a process that happens naturally throughout pregnancy. However, scientists still have to figure out how to get stem cells to specialize into certain kinds of cells.
Current success in the use of cord blood cells has still been limited to producing a few kinds of cells, primarily bone marrow and blood cells.
13 Treatable Illnesses
So far, however, our current technology in stem cell treatment can address about 80 different conditions. This includes several kinds of cancers and deficiencies in the blood and bone marrow. It can also be used to treat certain metabolic and immune system conditions.
With research advancing treatment in the use of cord blood stem cells, however, more diseases are likely to be added to the list over the next years. If you’re interested in this mode of treatment, it’s best to keep updated through reliable science websites that review the latest research.
12 The First Treatment
The very first case where cord blood stem cells were used to treat a disease was in 1988. It was used to treat a condition called Fanconi anemia, a genetic illness that affects the bone marrow’s ability to produce healthy cells. With this illness, the person affected will have low cell counts of all kinds of cells.
In this case, the donor was the patient’s newborn sister, who was a close match genetically but did not have the gene for Fanconi anemia. The transplant involved introducing the cells into the patient’s bone marrow, basically replacing all the patient’s own cells. Here, his sister’s cells were able to establish themselves and multiply until there were enough in number to produce normal blood cells. The stem cell transplant was a success and the patient was able to live a normal life.
11 On Family Cord Blood Banks
Currently, you can opt to keep your child’s cord blood samples in a bank, just in case they will be needed in the future. However, this process can be pretty pricey. There is an initial processing fee that can cost up to $3,000, plus an annual storage fee. However, this does include everything from extraction, shipment, preservation and testing. Still, it’s pretty inaccessible for most people.
All things considered, however, there are only two major risks for cord blood banking for your family: one is that it’s pricey and the second is that you may not use it. But more on that later.
10 Not Yet Recommended
Because of the steep cost for cord blood baking, doctors still do not recommend it for most people. This is primarily because for the large majority of the population, the chances that one will develop an illness that is treatable through stem cell treatment is very low. In addition, there is no guarantee that stem cells will survive the preservation process. There have been cases where a child developed an illness treatable by cord blood stem cells, only for the parents to later find out that none of the stem cells that were preserved were usable for the illness, or that the preserved cells carry the same defect that produced the illness in the first place.
This is just to say that with current technology, family cord blood stem cell banking’s costs are still greater than the likelihood that you will receive its benefits.
9 Family Protection
However, cord blood banking may be recommended if your family has a history of a condition that is treatable with stem cell technology. And in this case, the more of you who have your stem cells banked, the better the chances of anyone who will be diagnosed in the future.
This is primarily because you never know which one of you will be a match, and which one will be carrying the defective gene. Fortunately, some family blood banks offer discounts for families who opt for cord blood banking.
8 Public Banking
What most doctors will recommend, however, is to donate cord blood stem cells in a public bank. This means that the donated stem cells will be accessible to more people who might need it. This is especially valuable if you are a minority or have a rare genetic type, because it is harder for people with your specific set of genes to get a stem cell that actually matches, reducing the risk of rejection.
After all, your individual risk of needing treatment with stem cells is pretty low. However, the chances that a donated stem cell from you can benefit someone else is high.
Some people might imagine cord blood extraction as a risky and painful procedure. It is, however, pretty safe when conducted by a health professional with proper training. There are two ways to extract blood from the umbilical cord. The first is with the use of a syringe. This is not painful for the mother or the baby as it is drawn closer to the placenta than the baby and there are no pain receptors in the umbilical cord, besides. The second is by simply using gravity to drain the cord blood into a bag. The sample should only be taken within 15 minutes after birth and needs to be processed immediately.
6 How much Blood?
The amount of blood extracted from the umbilical cord varies greatly. It really depends on how much blood is available within the cord after birth. This is because shortly after birth, the cord continues to supply some blood and nutrients to the baby. In fact, it could benefit the baby if as much of this blood reaches him before the cord is cut.
This means that the blood that is extracted during the procedure is essentially only residue that remains in the cord during this process. Often, up to 180mL of blood can be extracted from the cord, although sometimes only as little as 30mL is readily available.
We have already covered earlier a few issues on the usability of cord blood stem cells. First of all, the chances that one individual will get a condition that is treatable by stem cells is pretty low, unless there is already a high familial risk for it. Second, there is no guarantee that the amount of blood that can be extracted can actually be viable for a transplant in the future. In most cases, the number of stem cells extracted is only enough to treat a child and not an adult with the same illness. Third, we’re still not sure how long a unit of cord blood can be frozen and still be viable. Finally, the stem cells contained in the blood may still contain genetic defects that might mean that it cannot be used.
If you really want to store your child’s cord blood and have the resources, however, this should not be a hindrance. After all, technology is improving by the day and we might find solutions to some of these problems. In the meantime, however, your best bet is donation to a public bank.
4 The Umbilical Cord Itself
Some banks that store cord blood also offer a service that allows you to store a section of your baby’s umbilical cord. This is because the umbilical cord itself is also a reservoir of stem cells, not just the blood that it contains. The umbilical cord, after all, is formed by actual cells from the fertilized egg, which is pretty much the stem cell to everything.
Extraction of cord stem cells is usually done around the same time that the blood is extracted. A portion of the umbilical cord is snipped off – again, a painless procedure because this part of your baby’s body does not have any nerve endings. It is then labelled and frozen for future use. This could have some added benefit, especially if not enough blood is extracted or if specific stem cells that can only be found within the cord are needed in the future.
Preserving the umbilical cord and the blood is done through a process called cryopreservation, which many consider as just a fancy term for freezing. It is, however, more than just freezing. This is because plain old freezing can result in ice crystals within the cells, damaging it and making it unusable for the future. Just imagine putting a boiled potato in the freezer. Once you defrost it, it will turn mushy and spongy in texture, a sure sign of cold damage.
Preservation is done through the addition of cryoprotectants, a sort of “antifreeze” that protects cells from cold damage. Antifreeze just basically prevents the formation of ice crystals, ensuring that once the cells are brought back to temperature, they’re still usable.
2 Reducing Rejection
One of the most common reasons why preserving your child’s own stem cells may be attractive is because in the case that they are needed in the future, there is a low chance of rejection, granted that they are usable. Like many other transplants, stem cells require a certain degree of genetic compatibility so that the immune system does not recognize these cells as foreign and therefore attack them.
Basically, there are proteins on the surface of cells that helps your immune system recognize if this is “your” cells or they’re some other cells that could possibly be an invader. This is great for detecting invaders, but not so great if you need a transplant. This is, of course, far easier if the cells were the patient’s own in the first place!
1 Other Stem Cells
In the aforementioned case where your own stem cells are defective and cannot be used for you, don’t lose hope in stem cell treatments! You can still opt to consult a public bank to look for non-defective cord blood stem cells that other people have donated. There is, of course, a higher chance that these cells will be rejected. However, they will surely be tested to ensure that you get one with as close a match as possible, making sure that you have a better chance of accepting these cells as your own.
As we further research in the field of cord blood stem cells, it is hopeful that there are so many more conditions that can be cured in the near future!