Cord Blood Stem Cells - FAQs
What is cord blood?
Cord blood, which is also called "placental blood," is the blood that remains in the umbilical cord and placenta following birth and after the cord is cut. Cord blood is routinely discarded with the placenta and umbilical cord. Your baby's umbilical cord blood is a valuable source of stem cells, which are genetically unique to your baby and family.
What are stem cells and how are they used?
Stem cells are the body's "master" cells because they create all other tissues, organs, and systems in the body. The stem cells found in cord blood are the building blocks of your blood and immune system and most readily replicate into:
Red Blood Cells - which carry oxygen to all the cells in the body,White Blood Cells - which fight infection, and Platelets - which aid in clotting in the event of injury.
There are three sources where stem cells are commonly found, they are:
* Bone Marrow,
* Peripheral Blood (the blood that circulates through your body), and
* Umbilical Cord Blood.
The ability of cord blood stem cells to differentiate, or change into other types of cells in the body is a new discovery that holds significant promise for improving the treatment of some of the most common diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer's.
Currently, stem cells are primarily used in transplant medicine to regenerate a patient's blood and immune system after they have been treated with chemotherapy and/or radiation to destroy cancer cells.
At the same time the chemotherapy and radiation destroys the cancer cells in a patient, they also destroy stem cells. Therefore, an infusion of stem cells or a stem cell transplant is performed after the chemotherapy and/or radiation treatment. The stem cells then migrate to the patient's bone marrow where they multiply and regenerate all of the cells to create a new blood and immune system for the patient.
The promise of using stem cells for medical treatments has been the focus of research projects that are showing encouraging results.
* Cord blood stem cells have been "triggered" to differentiate into neural cells, which could lead to treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
* They have also proven their ability to turn into blood vessel cells, which could some day benefit treatments for heart disease, allowing patients to essentially "grow their own bypass."
What types of diseases are treated with stem cell transplantation?
The link below reflects all of the types of diseases that have treatments involving stem cell transplantation. Not all diseases amenable to stem cell transplantation have been treated specifically with cord blood stem cells.
Some of the research currently being conducted using stem cells for treatment in cellular repair and regeneration are listed under Potential Future Stem Cell Applications.
Are cord blood stem cells different than other types of stem cells?
Yes. Umbilical cord blood stem cells are the "youngest," safely available stem cells and they are the product of another miracle - a live birth. Freezing these cells essentially stops the clock and prevents aging and damage that may occur to the cells later in life. Another source of stem cells, embryonic stem cells, has been at the heart of heated debate. Currently, embryonic stem cells are not being used to treat humans. A third category of stem cells is adult stem cells, such as those found in bone marrow. Adult stem cells serve very specialized roles in children and adults and are not as proliferative as those found in cord blood.
Why are doctors turning to cord blood instead of bone marrow?
Easier to match -- higher survival
Bone marrow is difficult to match between the donor and recipient because a "perfect match" is usually required. Cord blood immune cells, however, are less mature than in bone marrow and can be successfully used even when there is only a half-match. This means there is more opportunity for transplants between family members when cord blood is stored. Some studies have shown that overall survival rates for related transplants are more than double that of transplants from unrelated donors.
Banking cord blood ensures that these stem cells can be immediately available if they are needed for treatment. Early treatment of many illnesses can minimize disease progression, Cord blood transplants could provide possible survival that is unlikely with the more time consuming process of unrelated marrow donation.
Overall, patients who receive cord blood transplants from a relative experience significantly less Graft vs. Host Disease (GVHD), a transplant rejection that is the leading cause of death in stem cell transplant patients. According to one study, the three-year cumulative incidence of chronic GVHD was 6% for matched siblings who received cord blood transplants versus 15% for matched siblings who received bone marrow transplants.
What is graft vs. host disease (GVHD)?
GVHD is one of the most common and life threatening side effects of a stem cell/bone marrow transplant. GVHD occurs when the transplanted stem cells recognize the recipient's body as foreign, and "reject" it. Cord blood transplants have had a noticeable lack of GVHD because the stem cells from the donor do not need to match the recipient as closely as with bone marrow.
What is HLA matching?
Matching refers to six proteins called Human Leukocyte Antigens (HLA) that appear on the surface of white blood cells and other tissues in the body. These six HLA points, or loci, determine tissue compatibility between a patient and a donor. Although a perfect match would be best, studies have shown that cord blood transplants are successful, even when only three of the six loci match. With cord blood, the immune cells are less mature than those in bone marrow, and therefore siblings are twice as likely to be able to use each other's cord blood, compared to bone marrow.