Should You Bank Your Baby's Blood?

Umbilical cord rich in stem cells, but saving it may be waste of money

FRIDAY, May 10, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Expectant parents are faced with an array of medical decisions -- which tests to have, where to have their baby, what kind of birth they hope to have, and more. As medical science makes further advances, that list will only grow longer.

Add this to the list: A growing number of parents are looking into the banking of umbilical cord blood, which could hel their child recover from certain diseases that may strike later in life.

In the past, this blood was routinely discarded, but scientists have learned umbilical cord blood is rich in stem cells.

Stem cells are blood cells from which all other blood cells -- platelets, red blood cells and white blood cells -- are continually created. They are most often found in bone marrow, but some research suggests stem cells from umbilical cord blood are even better at producing blood cells than stem cells from bone marrow, according to the March of Dimes.

"Stem cells are used to repopulate the bone marrow," says Kaj Rydman, vice president and general manager of the stem cell division of California Cryobank, a private company that banks umbilical cord blood. "Stem cells from the umbilical cord can help to rebuild the immune system that has been destroyed by disease or by radiation or chemotherapy."

There are 45 malignant and non-malignant diseases that have been treated with umbilical cord stem cells, Rydman says. These include some cancers, such as leukemia, some types of anemia and immune system disorders.

While the chances of any one child developing a disease that would require an infusion of stem cells is rare -- somewhere between one in 5,000 to one in 20,000, depending on the disease, Rydman says, some parents won't take the risk that their child might be the unfortunate one.

"It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Rydman says. "You only get one chance to get that blood, and there are so many possibilities with stem cells."

About 100,000 parents have saved their babies umbilical cord blood, including some Hollywood celebrities, Rydman says. While he couldn't name the celebrities, he did say one of the actors who plays a doctor on the medical drama, "ER," used their service.

More than a dozen private companies offer the service, but that peace of mind doesn't come cheaply.

Rydman says California Cryobank charges $700 for the collection process, and then a small annual fee for storage. Prices vary from around $500 to $1,500 for the start-up fees, and from about $75 to $95 per year for banking the frozen blood.

Some believe the money could be put to better use.

"If money is no object, it certainly does no harm," says Dr. Adam Levy, a pediatric oncologist at New York University Medical Center. "Kids would probably be better off if you put that money into a college fund for them, though."

Levy says if your child ends up with cancer or another disease that needs to be treated with a stem cell transplant, doctors probably wouldn't want to use the child's stem cells because whatever made him sick could be in those stem cells.

If parents are saving the umbilical cord blood because it might some day help a sick sibling, Levy says that's unnecessary because the child is there to do a bone marrow transplant if it's ever needed.

If you decide not to bank your child's umbilical cord blood, Levy does recommend you donate that blood to a public cord blood bank that will use it for people who need stem cell transplants immediately or for research.

"This is a great opportunity for patients who need the stem cells right now, as opposed to saving for a hypothetical situation that will probably never happen," Levy says.

Rydman agrees that if you don't want to save your child's umbilical cord blood or cannot afford to do it, donating it is a good idea. He does add that it's sometimes difficult to do because there isn't an infrastructure in place yet for donating cord blood.

What To Do: Here's what the March of Dimes and the National Marrow Donor Program have to say about saving cord blood.

SOURCES: Kaj Rydman, vice president and general manager, stem cell division, California Cryobank, Santa Monica, Calif.; Adam Levy, M.D., pediatric oncologist, New York University Medical Center, and professor, pediatric hematology and oncology, New York University School of Medicine, New York City
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