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From a New Life Can Come the Chance to Save Another

Medicine: The birth of a baby may have become even more miraculous as umbilical cord blood is used to cure cancers and immune system disorders.

May 01, 1996|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

During the course of a pregnancy, expectant parents have many personal decisions to make. Should they undergo prenatal testing? Should Mom breast-feed? Should a son be circumcised?

Add a new consideration to the list: Should the parents save their infant's umbilical cord blood?

In a few hospitals and clinics, that question is becoming a routine part of the discussions between obstetricians or nurse-midwives and their patients. And if the International Cord Blood Foundation is successful in its new venture, every mother-to-be will eventually be asked to consider saving cord blood.

"Our position is that every expecting mother deserves to be informed about the properties of cord blood and that it is up to the mother to make an informed choice: to save it for themselves, donate it for the public good or throw it away," says Larry Andreini, executive director of the San Mateo-based foundation.

The nonprofit organization was founded last year to develop a cord blood bank from unrelated volunteer donors. Its goal is to serve as a resource for anyone needing transplantable stem cells, the disease-fighting cells extracted from the umbilical cord after birth.

When transplanted, cord blood cells can help cure various types of cancers and immune system disorders, similar to bone marrow transplants. But most umbilical cords are simply discarded after birth.

"Cord blood has come a long way just in the last three or four years," Andreini says. "Out of the 200 cord blood transplants, 100 were done last year. So there is an accelerated interest and belief in cord blood."

(Michelle Carew, the teenage daughter of former baseball star Rod Carew, has been the most well-known recipient of a cord blood transfer. Found to have a rare form of leukemia last year, she underwent a cord blood transfer earlier this spring. But she died two weeks ago from complications of her disease and before the transplanted cells had a chance to work.)

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Most of the cord blood banked so far has been for the donor family's own use. The family pays the cost of collecting and storing the blood.

In addition to the ICBF public bank, the federal government is also setting up a smaller bank through the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

"It's a win-win situation," says Dr. Richard Schwarz, the immediate past president of the American Academy of Obstetrics and Gynecology and a professor at the State University of New York Health Science Center at Brooklyn. "There is not much of a downside because the cord blood is usually discarded with the placenta."

According to ICBF, every pregnant woman, her partner and the obstetrician or midwife should discuss saving the cord blood by the second trimester of pregnancy. At least two months before childbirth, the mother would provide ICBF with her medical history and a blood sample to check for infectious diseases.

This information is confidential. If the mother is a suitable donor, she is given a collection kit to bring to her delivery. ICBF informs the mother's obstetrician or midwife that she has opted to save the cord blood, and the medical team is briefed on how and when to collect the blood, which averages about 3 ounces.

If parents wish to store the blood for their own private use they would pay about $1,000 for collection and about $100 per year in storage fees.

"The odds that someone would need it are low," Andreini says. "This is protection in the event of a catastrophic event. But a family with a history of leukemia, for example, would be alerted to save it for themselves."

The family pays nothing if they opt to donate the blood to the public bank. ICBF solicits corporate donations and holds fund-raising drives to pay for the costs of public donation and storage. The Cord Blood Registry, based at the University of Arizona, collects privately donated blood and donates part of its fees to the nonprofit ICBF.

"Our goal is to collect 100,000 samples over the next three years. That means we will have to find a way to raise $80 million. That sounds like a lot of money, but that could save thousands of children's lives," Andreini says.

Not everyone is certain the public is ready to respond to the issue with their gifts of blood or money. While there is widespread agreement on the vast potential of cord blood transplants to treat a variety of conditions, some people think that more transplants and studies are needed.

"I think that the public needs to learn about this. But there are enough questions remaining that I don't think it's ready for prime time. It's not ready for routine use," says Dr. Paul McCurdy, director of the blood resources program for the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Md.

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