Cord Blood Banking

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife is due in three months and we’ve seen ads and flyers for cord blood banking. Several of our friends have signed up for it. Is it really worthwhile?

A: Not all that long ago, placentas and umbilical cords were considered medical waste. But today, the stem cells found in umbilical cords can be used to treat dozens of conditions, including leukemia and some cancers. And as technology advances, researchers are looking at cord blood stem cells as a possible cure for everything from torn ligaments and diabetes, to heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and spinal cord injury.

So when it comes to your baby’s umbilical cord, you have three basic options: throw it away, donate it to a public cord blood bank, or bank it privately. Because of the tremendous potential benefits, I strongly recommend that you NOT toss it out. Let me give you some of the pros and cons of the other two options:

  • Public donation. This is a free option. Assuming enough blood can be collected (usually 3-5 ounces), and the mother meets certain requirements (for example, she must be free of HIV, most cancers, diabetes, and a number of other conditions), your baby’s cord blood will be analyzed and frozen for storage. It will then be listed in a national registry where surgeons from all over the world can search for matches for patients who need stem-cell transplants. Unfortunately, because of the high costs of collecting and storing cord blood, there are only about 20 facilities that can take donations. That may be changing, though, as Congress recently approved $20 million to establish a national cord blood banking system.
  • Private banking. If you can afford it, private cord blood banking can be an excellent insurance policy—especially if you have a family history of leukemia or any of the other diseases that can be treated with cord blood, and/or your child belongs to an ethnic minority or is multi-racial. People of a mixed-race heritage historically have a much harder time finding bone marrow matches than Caucasians. Privately banking your newborn’s cord blood stem cells is the only way to provide a 100 percent guarantee that you will have access to stem cells that are a perfect match for future medical treatments. Initial costs typically range from about $600 to over $2000. Annual storage fees are usually about $100.

The public vs. private decision is one that only you and your wife can make. Both methods are medically safe and painless for the mother and baby, because the cord blood is collected after the baby is born. If you’re having trouble deciding, you might want to take a look at the Parents Guide to Cord Blood Banks (parentsguidecordblood.com) for an unbiased review of the options.

If you’re interested in donating your baby’s cord blood, start by taking with your wife’s OB now. Most public banks like to get the testing and screening processes started before the 34th week of pregnancy. You should also make contact with the National Marrow Donor Program (1-888-999-6743 or http://www.marrow.org/), which maintains the largest listing of cord blood units in the world. They have a huge amount of excellent information about stem cells and cord blood donation on their website.

If you’re interested in exploring private banking, be sure to let your wife’s OB know. You should also start doing some research right now to help you find the best bank. Important factors to consider include financial stability (less chance the company will go out of business), how long they’ve been in business, how many samples they currently store, a complete listing of fees. Many of the private banks offer similar services at similar prices, which sometimes makes it hard to evaluate them. I’ve heard a lot of good things about one in particular, though: LifebankUSA (lifebankusa.com or 877-543-3226).

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