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Cord Blood Stem Cells Are Long-Lived

They're still good after 15 years in fight against blood disorders

MONDAY, Dec. 30, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Cord blood stem cells can be safely frozen and stored for at least 15 years, scientists report.

If this news upsets you and gets you muttering about the dangers of human cloning, you can calm down. These are not the embryonic stem cells that can develop into any kind of cell and that are part of the cloning debate. Instead, they are stem cells from fully developed babies that can develop only into cells of the blood and immune system.

And the report by scientists at the Indiana University School of Medicine that frozen umbilical cord stem cells are as viable as those in fresh cord blood comes as no surprise to people in the field.

"We have been using cord blood stem cells for over seven years and have found no change," says Kathy Muekl, nurse coordinator of the St. Louis Blood Cord Bank, one of about 15 nonprofit centers that store core blood cells. "I know about a unit that was used when it was 12 years old, and there was no problem with it."

"We never say 'indefinitely' because you can't measure that, but we do talk in terms of decades," says Jerry Maass, executive vice president of Cryo-Cell International, one of several for-profit organizations that store cells for parents.

Nevertheless, the report in tomorrow's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is welcomed by Maass and Muekl because it might promote cord blood cell storage, a painless effort that could be important in later years.

What Hal E. Broxmeyer, scientific director at the Indiana school, and his colleagues report is a continuation of a tracking program. Previously, they have taken five- and 10-year-old cord stem cells and measured their viability against pre-freezing values. They even transplanted some cells into mice and found that they reproduce for at least 11 weeks.

What drives parents to store cord blood cells is the thought that their own baby's cells might be more effective in treating a serious illness later in life than cells from a national registry or cord cell blood bank.

"It has been shown that blood cells collected within the family are easier to transplant and cause fewer complications," Maass says. "This is a type of insurance by collecting a baby's cord blood cells so they have a ready source of cells if there is a disease that is treatable by stem cell transplantation."

Most of the diseases requiring transplantation involve the blood system -- severe anemias such as sickle cell anemia, or cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma. These can be treated by destroying the diseased cells and replacing them with a transplant of healthy cells.

Parents are worried enough so that "business is good," Maass says. "But our biggest challenge remains having expectant parents aware of the advantages of storing cord blood cells. Also, this is something that often is not covered by medical insurance." Using a commercial stem cell storage company such as Cryo-Cell costs hundreds of dollars.

Nonprofit centers urge all expectant parents to arrange for stem cell collection and storage for the public good, Muekl says.

What To Do

You can learn more about cord blood storage from the Cord Blood Donor Foundation. Learn more about stem cells from the Stem Cell Research Foundation.

SOURCES: Kathy Muekl, nurse coordinator, St. Louis Cord Blood Bank, St. Louis; Jerry Maass, executive vice president, Cryo-Cell International, Clearwater, Fla.; Dec. 31, 2002, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
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