I love being able to help my children give gifts. For Mother’s Day and for my wife’s birthday, it’s a treat for me to get a sense of what the kids want to give, and to provide what they need in order to make it happen. Perhaps all it takes is a few markers and nicely shaped stone. Sometimes it would require an extravagant sum of money, far beyond my means. Then we look for something else for them to give.
What does a brand-new baby have to give?
When a baby’s umbilical cord has been cut, the blood that remains in the cord and the placenta is usually thrown out. But this blood is very special, not only because it is genetically new and unique, but also because it contains special stem cells, the center of much exciting medical research. Stem cells are cells that haven’t committed themselves yet to remain a single type of cell. They are full of potential! They can reproduce into other types of blood and immune cells. They can also reproduce into other types of cells including bone, heart, muscle, and nerve.
Stem cells are like master keys, unlocking different paths of development. Throughout your pregnancy, they have been making the marvels of development possible. Are they useful after a baby is born?
Stem cell transplants are currently an important, life-saving treatment for some types of cancer. One of my best friends is having a stem cell transplant as I am writing this chapter. The odds that your child will need this are small. About 99.96 percent of children will have no need of this before their 21st birthdays. And 99.93 percent of families won’t need them for another family member. About 1 in 1400 will.
In the unlikely event that such a transplant is necessary, the cells could come from a public stem cell bank, or from a bone marrow transplant. Often this solves the problem. But if stem cells from your baby were available, they would be preferred. . Not only are they unique to your baby, they are the stem cells most likely to be a match other people in the family. Using cord blood stem cells decreases the chance of rejecting the transplant, and increases the survival rate. And they are available without a search. Your baby’s cord blood is unique, and can only be collected in the few minutes after a baby is born.
Stem cell transplants are also currently in use for diseases such as aplastic anemia, severe combined immunodeficiency, and rare metabolic diseases.
Potential Benefits for the Family
Stem cell research is a hot area. It’s likely, but not at all certain, that in the next decade stem cells will find exciting new uses. It’s also likely that some of the areas scientists are investigating will not pan out when more is known. Here are some of the most promising possibilities:
Heart Repair. Human trials have already shown improved heart health within weeks when stem cells have been given after a heart attack to repair damaged heart muscle.
Blood Vessel Repair. Human trials have already shown some success with giving stem cells to help grow new blood vessels and improve circulation. This has worked even on coronary blood vessels, with people growing their own bypasses. Perhaps they could even be used to prevent or treat strokes.
Brain Repair. Because stem cells can transform into nerve cells, researchers are actively looking at ways to treat, and perhaps reverse, diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s with stem cells. I recently went to a dinner where Christopher Reeve spoke with power and passion about the possibilities of stem cell research for repairing spinal cord injuries.
Other Organ Repair. Scientists are also looking at other possibilities, including trying to cure diabetes by repairing the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.
More on Cord Blood Banking:
What to do About Cord Blood Banking