Umbilical cords a source of lifesaving blood

October 15, 2009 The key is cord blood. But doctors say not enough is being done to make it available.

When a baby is born the umbilical cord is often considered waste and thrown away. But years ago it was discovered cord blood could help cure people with life threatening diseases. But not many people realize this and as cord blood is discarded so is the possibility of saving one more life.

Dave Withaar, 46, is alive today, thanks to the birth of a baby on the other side of the world: New Zealand.

"To find that it did come from there was amazing to me," said David Withaar, cancer patient.

Dave was told he needed a bone marrow transplant but couldn't find the right match.

"Siblings were tried and tested but they didn't match. They were all disappointed," said Renee Withaar, wife.

Earlier this year he was diagnosed with lymphoblastic lymphoma, an aggressive cancer that had invaded his liver.

When no match was found in the U.S.doctors decide to look into the possibility of umbilical cord blood.

"The good thing about using an umbilical cord unit is you don't necessarily have to have a perfect match," said Dr. Scott Smith, oncologist/hepatologist, Loyola University Medical Center.

Cord blood is what's left in the umbilical cord after a baby is born. It's a rich source of stem cells from which new healthy blood and immune cells can be produced.

The pluses are it's less restrictive than that of bone marrow so it doesn't have to be a perfect match. As a result, it can be a lifesaver for people with leukemia, lymphoma and other immune system and genetic disorders.

But there are two big problems.

"Cord blood has an actual higher quality but it's a quantity issue," said Dr. Patrick Stiff, hematologist/oncologist, Loyola University Medical Center.

Dr. Patrick Stiff says since umbilical cords are not very large. The amount of blood extracted is only about 3 ounces.

But the cells are so potent they're often enough to start bone marrow function in an adult patient.

Another challenge is educating moms about the value of saving and donating their cord blood.

"The moms don't know about it and they are told after birth, did you donate your cord blood," said Dr. Stiff.

In Illinois, doctors and hospitals are required to discuss cord blood donation with pregnant moms.

But during the excitement of having a baby and all the paperwork involved the cord blood conversation often gets lost in the shuffle. In many cases it's up to the mom to preplan the donation which means getting the kit and bringing it to the hospital herself.

Dave's story is an example of just how much of a difference it can make. He's still not home free yet. But doctors say he is doing well. His wife Renee wishes she would have donated her cord blood when her babies were born. It wasn't an option then. She's hoping other mom's will see their story and realize what a difference they can make in someone else's life.

"If you have to sit down for an hour and do paperwork and sign if you are going to save it," said Renee.

Loyola University has the largest bone marrow transplant program in Illinois. It was recently awarded a grant to be used to investigate ways to grow both blood stem cells and immune cells from cord blood stem cells outside the body.

Loyola University Medical Center

Be the Match

The Institute for Transfusion Medicine

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