While pregnant women welcome a child into the world, few may realize they can save another at the same time with a simple donation.
Choosing to donate the blood from the umbilical cord can help treat more than 80 diseases, said Yesi Sevilla, director of LifeCord at LifeSouth community blood centers.
“Either it is going to be used for transplant or it is going to be used for research that improves neonatal diagnostics or transplant clinical trials,” she said.
In fact, Northeast Georgia Medical Center was awarded a plaque Dec. 5 for being the top donor of cord blood to LifeCord Cord Blood Bank. The hospital has been participating in the LifeCord program for several years and has provided 1,311 donations from January to November of this year alone.
The life-saving effort helped provide cord blood to treat a person needing a transplant for myelodysplastic disorder, a rare disorder that occurs in less than five out of every 100,000 people.
“Cord blood is something that if it is not collected and donated, it is considered medical waste,” said Heather Standard, manager for labor and delivery at NGMC. “As you’re giving birth and bringing new life into the world, you have the opportunity to potentially save a life.”
Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg, professor of pediatrics and pathology at Duke University, said cord blood has been used for almost two decades.
Cord blood has been successful in “treating children with leukemia and other malignant conditions as well as serious genetic conditions, like sickle cell anemia and bone marrow failure,” she said.
Cord blood is used to match and help treat more diseases. And with cord blood stem cells, it is easier for the donor and recipient to be a match.
“In the adult marrow world, you have adult stem cell donors and the stem cells are very developed so that match has to be very perfect for that patient to receive treatment,” Sevilla said. “With umbilical cord blood, the stem cells are very ‘naive;’ they’re relatively infant stem cells and the match has to be less perfect. So for a patient to find a stem cell match it is easier.”
But donating cord blood is not as simple as making the donation.
“Actual cord blood donation poses no risk,” Sevilla said. “There have been debates on when to clamp and when not to clamp, but those decisions are about the mom and the baby.”
Mothers with complicated pregnancies and babies with low birthweight will more than likely not be donors.
Becoming a cord blood donor requires a very thorough interview process.
“There are medical health questionnaires, there are consent forms that moms have to go through,” because the bank is licensed by the FDA and because it works with the National Marrow Donor Program, Sevilla said.
After the mom has her baby, a LifeSouth representative will come to her room at the hospital to thank her and perform the interview.
“It’s really simple,” LifeSouth cord blood specialist Heather Wright said. “(The process) only takes us about 10-15 minutes.”
Questions include the mother’s medical history, family medical history, demographics and the baby’s race and ethnicity, Wright said.
And even though a mother might pass the interview, the cord must be tested and pass through a process after the doctors clamp the cord, Sevilla said.
Mothers are urged to become a cord blood donor.
“With the public donation, it doesn’t cost anything because it’s a donation,” Standard said.
A public bank will try to use every cord donated, which differs from a private bank where the cord blood will be costly and probably not used.
However, mother and baby’s safety comes first. Each delivery is looked at individually to make sure there is no risk or complications.
“On the recipient side, you’re hoping that all moms make this choice because that raises your availability to find a match,” Sevilla said.
Already knowing what cord blood can do, many academic centers and biotech companies are working on expanding the use of the immature blood cells.
“One focus of research is to try to engineer the blood cells in a laboratory so that they expand before they are transplanted and then grow back more quickly,” Kurtzberg said.
Looking toward the future, cord blood infusions may help patients who have had strokes or heart attacks and patients who have type 1 diabetes.
“One of the thoughts is that maybe cord blood infusion could help repair damaged cells in patients with diabetes,” Kurtzberg said.
With patients who have had strokes or heart attacks, the thought is the cord blood infusion would help decrease inflammation and hopefully send signals to the heart and brain to possibly repair damaged tissues, Kurtzberg said.
Only two hospitals in Georgia participate in the LifeCord program: NGMC and Piedmont Henry Hospital. LifeCord also works with hospitals in Alabama and Florida. Along with collection sites, 29 other states and 14 other countries have access to the donations through Be The Match, a bone marrow registry site.