FRIDAY, Oct. 7, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- A mother cuddling her newborn baby may not know it, but the process that created a new life also has given her the chance to save another.
Blood contained in the umbilical cord and placenta is a rich source of stem cells that can be used to treat leukemia, lymphoma and many other life-threatening diseases, according to the National Marrow Donor Program.
However, many expectant mothers don't know that they can donate cord blood after childbirth. Others don't donate because they are concerned the process might be expensive or risk the health of their newborn.
"Less than 5 percent of parents are storing their children's cord blood," said Frances Verter, founder and director of the Parent's Guide to Cord Blood Foundation. "That's just a tragedy because it's medically important and there is no danger to mother or child from donation."
Cord blood is considered valuable because it can be matched to many more patients than bone marrow can be, said Mary Halet, director of recruitment and community development for the National Marrow Donor Program.
"The cells in the placenta and umbilical cord are very naive," Halet said. "They haven't been exposed to viruses or environmental pathogens so it hasn't formed any reactive abilities. It has the ability to live and grow in a not-perfectly-matched host."
Donation occurs after a baby has been delivered and the umbilical cord is clamped, Verter explained. A doctor or nurse will sterilize the cord, insert a needle and draw blood from it.
"You can get a few ounces of blood out of the cord," Verter said, which may not sound like much until you realize that those few ounces contain millions of stem cells. "Nothing else competes with cord blood in terms of getting millions of cells within a two-minute blood draw," she said.
Recent research has suggested that obstetricians might want to wait a few minutes before clamping the cord and taking the sample, as that last-minute flow of blood into the newborn could have medical benefits.
Cord blood donation advocates say that's fine, as long as doctors don't wait too long to act.
"You can wait a minute or two," Verter said. "After that, the blood is just clotting in the cord. It's not going into the baby."
Once drawn, the cord blood is shipped promptly to a lab, where it is processed to separate out the stem cells. The cells are cryogenically stored at minus 192 degrees Celsius. "So this is not something you can do with your kitchen freezer," Verter said.
Some debate has arisen over whether a mother should donate her cord blood to a public bank or pay to privately bank it, just in case there is an illness in her family.
The advantage to private banking is that cord blood works like bone marrow, in that people who are related and therefore genetically matched will receive more benefit from the stem cells.
"It turns out that transplants from family members have a higher success rate than transplants from unrelated donors," Verter said. That suggests that a woman might want to consider privately banking the blood if her family has a history of illness, particularly blood-borne illnesses.
However, there are drawbacks. Banking cord blood is an expensive proposition. Companies charge $1,000 to $2,000 for initial processing, plus an annual storage fee of about $125, Verter said.
Also, if a family member is suffering from a blood-related genetic defect, banking may not do them any good, Halet said. The cord blood might carry the same genetic trait.
Donating to a public bank is free and makes the blood available to anyone who might need it. "It's a very powerful gift," Halet said.
Banked cord blood keeps for a very long time. "There have been children who have received a cord blood donation that was banked a decade before they were diagnosed," Verter said.
The National Marrow Donor Program expects that by the year 2015 they will be matching up donors for 10,000 transplants a year, Halet said. Though bone marrow donations will help some of those patients, she said, stem cell donations from cord blood are much more flexible and useful.
This is particularly true for ethnic minorities, both experts said, because their likelihood of finding a direct genetic match for a bone marrow transplant is lower. "It's easier to find a match for cord blood than bone marrow," Verter said. "It does not have to be matched as precisely."
The need for minority donations is increasing even more with the rising number of mixed-race births, producing children with very unique genetics. "We encourage women who are having children that are mixed race or minority background to help further augment the registry," Halet said.
In addition, doctors and scientists continue to uncover new ways to use cord blood stem cells to help heal the sick.
"There's still a lot of promise with cord blood," Halet said. "I don't believe the real range of therapies that cord blood can offer has been elucidated yet."
Only about 200 hospitals in the United States have an active donation program for cord blood, Verter said. However, if a mother wishes to donate, she can tell hospital staff or contact the National Marrow Donor Program to make arrangements.
"There are states that now have laws requiring parents to be informed of their options in cord blood banking," Verter said. "Cord blood saves lives, and it is very easy to donate."
The Paren'ts Guide to Cord Blood Foundation has more on cord blood donations.
For more on how cord blood can save lives, read one woman's story.