The delivery of a child is a life-changing moment for new parents, but it can also be life-saving for someone else.
The miracle that is birth is not confined to the wonder of what is new. There is the possibility for even more marvel in what present existence might also be rescued.
The umbilical cord is a baby’s lifeline in the womb, providing all the child needs to grow and develop. Even after the cord is cut, it still has the potential to provide salvation for someone else.
The umbilical cord blood is rich with stem cells — young cells that have not yet become what they are supposed to be in the body. This means stem cells can grow into a number of different things. That potential means the cells can be transplanted into a sick patient to help grow new cells to replace diseased ones. Common uses for stem cells include treating bone marrow and blood disorders.
“Those cells just have so much potential to be other things,” said Dr. Anne Doll-Pollard, an obstetrician-gynecologist with Southern OB/GYN Associates (SOGA), which has locations in Highland, Breese, Greenville, New Baden and Salem. “The cells are not as likely to cause rejection or immune response, because it’s almost too early for them to have that.”
SOGA patients have been making donations to the St. Louis Cord Bank for 20 years. Those donations have been used to treat 44 patients afflicted by a dozen different diseases, including various forms of leukemia and lymphoma, and severe aplastic anemia.
Donated blood also has a long shelf life. In December, SOGA received a letter from the St. Louis Cord Blood Bank, saying a blood sample nurses had collected in 2012 was recently used to treat someone with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS).
“We’ve had people match before, but it always feels good to know that something we’ve spent a little bit of time collecting can save someone’s life,” Doll-Pollard said.
The Cord Blood Bank
The St. Louis Cord Blood Bank is one of the largest public cord blood banks in the world.
According to its website, the blood bank has had more than 180,000 units of blood donated to it over the years — 31,000 of which are available now for transplantation.
More than 2,700 units have been used to treat patients with various diseases, their ages ranging from only days to 71 years old. Over half the samples have been used to treat children.
Most of the donations used to treat patients are transplanted in the United States, but 20 percent of the units have been used to treat patients internationally.
“The St. Louis Cord Blood Bank works in collaboration with programs worldwide and has benefited children and adults in 218 transplant programs in 28 countries,” said Kathy Mueckl, R.N., nurse coordinator at the blood bank.
In 20 years, SOGA has donated 3,805 samples to the bank, some which have found their way to patients as far away as Germany and Brazil.
The donation experience
Highland residents Mark and Larissa Chapman decided to donate their daughter’s cord blood after their baby girl, Mara Jane, was born on Dec. 23, 2016.
The Chapmans, who also donated the cord blood from their son when he was born a year a half ago, said the process is safe and uncomplicated.
“It is very simple,” Larissa Chapman said. “It starts with filling out a medical history form and consents, then obtaining blood samples while starting the I.V. during admission for labor, and the very last step is for the physician or midwife to obtain the blood from the umbilical cord after the delivery of the baby.”
Larissa Chapman is a registered nurse who works in obstetrics at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Breese, so she already knew the benefits and reasons before making the decision to donate.
However, Dr. Doll-Pollard said many mothers are not aware of the option.
“But almost everyone is willing to donate when they hear that they can,” she said.
Some parents are hesitant to donate because of a stigma associated with stem cell research, Doll-Pollard said, many times this reluctance derives from confusion between embryonic and stem cells.
“Embryonic cells are usually taken from babies that have been miscarried or who have been aborted,” Doll-Pollard said. “That’s where that controversy leeches from — using embryos.”
However, using stem cells is a completely different matter, she said.
Umbilical stem cell donation is completely harmless for both mother and baby, Doll-Pollard said, the umbilical cord is simply cut and drained; it does not disrupt delivery of the baby.
Larissa Chapman encourages every mother to do their homework before deciding whether or not to donate their baby’s cord blood. As for herself, there was never a question in her mind about what she would do.
“It goes to a great cause,” she said. “Something that is so easy can go so far. It is a way to help other babies or adults in need of stem cell transplants.”
Banking versus donating
There are two choices that a family can make when the mother goes into labor — bank the blood for personal use, or to donate the blood so it might be used by someone else.
Parents who choose to bank store the blood for future use in case the baby, or someone else in the family, has an illness that can be treated with stem cells.
While donating blood does not cost anything, banking the blood can be costly. Prices of available family banks can be seen on the Parents Guide to Cord Blood Donation website.
Doll-Pollard said, banking also means that the blood cannot be used as a donation for someone outside of the family.
It may seem like rolling the dice when deciding to donate versus banking, but Doll-Pollard said there are benefits to donation.
“It is selfless,” she said. “But there is also that little selfish part that, if you do donate it, your child might (also) have some kind of match somewhere out there.”
Donated stem cells are also helping advance medicine to new levels.
“It is important to understand that these donations are not used just to save someone’s life, but to do important research as well,” Doll-Pollard said.
Currently, stem cells are being researched to try to find cures or ways to treat autism, spinal cord injury, stroke recovery and Alzheimer’s disease.
Doll-Pollard said that it is incredibly important for the family to weigh these options before a decision is made, so the cord blood is not discarded. If the cord blood is not donated or banked, it is simply thrown away.
“Those great resources are going to go to waste if you don’t donate it or bank it yourself,” she said.