When you’re pregnant, especially for the first time, you have to make a lot of decisions. Will coffee remain a part of your life? Where are you going to give birth? What are you going to name the baby? What values will you teach him? Do you really need a baby spa bathtub?
Before my first daughter arrived, an instructor at a birth class threw me a curveball: Was I planning on banking my baby’s umbilical cord blood?
For much of pregnancy, the umbilical cord is the lifeline of a fetus, tethering it to the placenta. Snaking through the nearly 2-feet-long cord, there’s a vein ferrying nutrients and oxygen from mom’s blood (via the placenta), plus two arteries carrying oxygen- and nutrient-depleted blood from the fetus back to mom. Because mother’s blood and fetal blood don’t actually mix much, the blood in the placenta and umbilical cord at birth belongs mainly to the fetus.
That fetal blood holds all sorts of interesting — and potentially therapeutic — cells and molecules. This realization has, in some cases, changed the way the umbilical cord and placenta are handled during birth. Instead of tossing it aside, some doctors, scientists and parents are choosing to bank this fetal blood — harvesting it from the baby’s umbilical cord and placenta, freezing it and storing it away for later.
Proponents of cord blood banking are convinced that instead of being medical waste, the fetal cells within are biological gold. In this post, and the two that follow, I’ll take a look at the evidence for those claims, and sort through some of the questions that arise as parents consider whether to bank their baby’s cord blood.
Back in the 1980s, umbilical cord blood caught the attention of researchers who suspected that the often-discarded tissue could be a valuable source of shape-shifting stem cells. These cells, which can become several different types of blood cells, are similar to the specialized stem cells found in bone marrow that can churn out new blood cells. Such stem cells are found in adult blood, too, but not as abundantly.
In 1988, a 5-year-old named Matthew with a rare type of anemia received umbilical cord blood cells from his newborn sister, who didn’t have the disease. That transfer, called an umbilical cord blood transplant, worked, and the boy was soon free of the disease.
At the time, researchers didn’t know much about the properties of the cells found in umbilical cord blood. But research has zoomed forward, illuminating more about the contents of this young blood.
Of particular interest are the flexible hematopoietic stem cells important in that initial transplant. In certain cases, transplanting these cells might be able to reboot a person’s body and get rid of a disease-related defect. Cord blood transplants are similar to bone marrow transplants. A person with leukemia, for instance, might have his own cancerous blood cells wiped out with chemotherapy and radiation. Healthy, non-cancerous stem cells from a donor can then repopulate the blood.
Extracting stem cells from bone marrow requires surgery under anesthesia; extracting them from the blood requires taking a drug to stimulate their production. And in order to work, these stem cell donations need to come from a person who carries a similar pattern of proteins on the outsides of his or her cells, a molecular calling card known as HLA type. Stem cells found in cord blood don’t need to be as closely matched to work. Because these cells are so flexible, there’s more wiggle room between donor and recipient. That’s particularly good news for people of certain ethnic minorities who often have trouble finding matched stem cell transplant donors.
Hard numbers are tricky to pin down, but between that first transplant in 1988 and 2015, an estimated 35,000 umbilical cord blood transplants had been performed globally. That number includes people treated for leukemia and other types of cancer, blood disorders and immune diseases. And the utility of umbilical cord cells may stretch well beyond the disorders that the cells are currently being used for. “If you read the literature, it’s pretty exciting,” says pediatrician and immunologist William Shearer of Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital.
Some researchers suspect that umbilical cord blood contains other cells that may have therapeutic effects beyond the blood. Specialized immune cells may be able to tweak brain function, for instance. Trials around the world are studying umbilical cord blood’s capabilities in a wide range of diseases (see Table 2 here): Cerebral palsy, autism, diabetes and lupus are currently under investigation. The cells are even being tested for an ameliorating role in Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions.
After injections with their own umbilical cord blood, 63 children with cerebral palsy improved on motor skills, on average. And a clinical trial to see whether cord blood transplants improve symptoms of children with autism spectrum disorder should wrap up in the summer of 2018, says pediatric researcher and clinician Joanne Kurtzberg of Duke University, who helped establish a not-for-profit umbilical cord bank in North Carolina. (A small but optimistic pilot study has already been completed.)
The potential powers of these cells have researchers excited. But what that scientific hope means for expectant parents facing decisions about cord blood banking is far from clear. For all of the promise, there are lots of reasons why umbilical cord cells may turn out to be less useful than thought. Read my next post for more about these potential drawbacks.