This is the first article in a series dedicated to learning about cord blood banking. It aims to educate expectant parents, helping them to make an informed decision about umbilical cord stem cell storage.
Cord Blood Stem Cells
In the past few decades, researchers have discovered the powerful regenerative capability of human stem cells. Stem cells have the unique ability to create other cells and can be harnessed for use in various medical treatments.
The stem cells found in umbilical cord blood are especially useful for a number of reasons. Part I of this cord blood banking education series examines why umbilical cord blood stem cells are so valuable.
What is umbilical cord blood?
The placenta and umbilical cord feed your child nutrients throughout the pregnancy. Shortly after a child is born, the placenta detaches from the uterine wall and passes through the birthing canal. At this point, both the placenta and umbilical cord still contain a generous amount of blood that is rich in stem cells.
Traditionally, both the placenta and the umbilical cord would be discarded as a medical waste. However, this stem cell rich blood can be extracted and preserved for future medical use. Some parents also choose to save their child’s umbilical cord tissue.
What makes cord blood stem cells different from other stem cell sources?
Normal stem cells found in adults are very limited in the kinds of cells they can create. For example, a skin stem cell can only create skin cells and stem cells found in bone marrow can only create blood cells.
The stem cells in umbilical cord blood however are unique because they are multipotent stem cells. Multipotent cells are capable of transforming into various types of cells, for example skin cells, cardiac cells and optic cells. Researchers have discovered ways to manipulate umbilical cord blood stem cells into behaving in different ways. That means they can be used for a wide variety of medical treatments including repairing the immune system or restoring red blood cell generation capability.
Umbilical cord stem cells are also very young and are less likely to trigger an immune system response from the recipient. One of the main problems with stem cell transplants is Graft Versus Host Disease, when a patient’s immune system rejects the donor’s stem cells. That is less likely to occur when using the very young stem cells found in umbilical cord blood.
For the same reason, it is easier to find donors-recipient matches for umbilical cord stem cells. Unlike some other types of stem cells, undeveloped stem cells can be transplanted between donors and recipients with a partial genetic match.
How can cord blood stem cells be used in treatments today?
Umbilical cord stem cells are already being used to treat nearly 80 different diseases including blood disorders, cancers, immune disorders and metabolic disorders. They are most frequently used in the treatment of cancer, where they play an important role in establishing healthy red blood cell production after chemotherapy.
How can stem cells be used in relation to cancer?
For many forms of cancer, chemotherapy and radiology can be extremely successful at killing the cancerous cells. The problem is that these treatments also kill healthy cells, including the bone marrow that produces red blood cells. The haematological stem cells found in umbilical cord blood can be used to re-establish the body’s red blood cell generating capability after high doses of chemotherapy and radiation. Umbilical cord stem cells can also replenish the immune system after it has been damaged by chemotherapy and radiology.
Some of the cancers which have been treated with the help of umbilical cord stem cells include: Acute Lymphocytic Leukaemia, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Plasma Cell Leukaemia, Chronic Myelomonocytic Leukaemia (CMML) and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Ongoing research is looking at using these stem cells to treat other cancers including breast cancer and prostate cancer.
What future stem cell applications may be available?
There are many continuing research projects which are looking at using umbilical cord blood stem cells to treat: heart disease, diabetes, muscular dystrophy, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and many more illnesses.
The field of regenerative medicine is looking at how umbilical cord stem cells can be used to repair and regenerate tissue throughout the body. These cells may be able to repair skin, ligaments, tendons, muscle and arteries. Many of these research projects are heading into clinical trials and researchers are just starting to realise the full potential of umbilical cord stem cells.
Part II of the on-going series will look at the Basics of Umbilical Cord Blood Banking.