The biggest questions parents have when considering cord blood banking is why should they bank, what are its benefits, and is it worth it. While some parents may choose banking because of their family history and others may choose it for added peace of mind, the ultimate reason is to help ensure your child’s and family’s future prosperity and health. Banking cord blood and tissue is a medical decision based on the relatively recent discovery of where to find and isolate stem cells and the growing use of stem cells in the treatment of diseases. Cord blood and tissue contain an abundance of stem cells that can easily be collected and banked (cryopreserved) in the event that they are needed later in life.

When someone contracts a disease that must be treated with chemotherapy or radiation, there is a high probability of a negative impact on the immune system. A particular type of stem cell found in bone marrow or cord blood is used to bolster and re-populate the blood and immune system. As an example, for a disease such as leukemia, chemotherapy is often used to rid the body of the cancerous blood cells, but it takes its toll on the body’s normal blood-forming cells, too. Stem cells transplants infuse the body with the blood-forming cells it needs to recover, effectively replacing the old cells with new, healthy cells.

Promising regenerative therapies

We are living in an exciting era of regenerative medicine. Stem cells are currently being studied in numerous clinical trials for regenerative medicine, treating diseases unrelated to the blood or immune system. Many of these studies involve cells from the umbilical cord blood or the cord tissue. New regenerative medicine uses stem cells to rebuild cardiac tissue, repair stroke damage or spinal cord injuries, reverse the effects of diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson's and build new organs. While the research is in its early stages, the possibilities are extremely promising.

Stem cells used in transplants were first obtained through bone marrow. In 1978, science discovered stem cells in the umbilical cord blood, and in 1988, cord blood stem cells were used in their first transplant. It was soon afterwards that some of the first private cord blood banks were established to provide parents the opportunity to store their baby's cord blood. In fact, Cryo-Cell is the world’s first private cord blood bank. Later on, Cryo-Cell's banking process was licensed to companies around the globe. Those companies have grown to become some of the largest stem cell banking companies in Europe, India, Mexico and other countries, providing families around the world access to therapies using their own child's stem cells.

Cord blood can be used in partial matches and shows a reduced risk of post-transplantation complications. Cord blood is also easy to collect at the time of delivery and is immediately available when needed. Here is a further look at the benefits of banking cord blood:

Easy to collect

There is no pain or risk for the mother or baby in extracting the blood from the umbilical cord, and the collection process is easily performed at the same time as the cutting of the umbilical cord. Bone marrow collection, on the other hand, requires an invasive, surgical procedure and general anesthesia, which comes with its own inherent risks.

Better matching

For stem cells to be successfully transplanted, they must be a match for the receiver. Matched stem cells can be found in some public databases, but the chance of finding a match is low and complications can arise with unrelated blood transfusions. Genetically related stem cells from a blood-related family member more often result in successful transplants. If a public match cannot be found, the patient must often rely on his own stem cells or those from an immediate family member (if available).

Someone’s own stem cells are always a perfect match for him or herself. Siblings share a 25 percent chance of being a perfect match and a 50 percent chance of being a partial match. Altogether, this gives siblings a 75 percent chance of being a possible match. Since each parent provides markers used in matching, parents have a 100 percent chance of being a partial match. This means a child’s cord blood stem cells could one day be used to help his or her mother or father. In the end, it is up to the doctor to determine how close the match needs to be to perform a transplant.

Less risk of post-transplant complications

In addition to being better accepted entirely by the body, cord blood stem cells have significantly reduced rate of post-transplant graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). GVHD is when the transplanted cells attack the body. It’s a major complication of stem cell transplants. Risk of GVHD after a stem cell transplant depends on the relationship between the donor and the receiver according to the National Institute of Health:
  • Identical twins: very low chance of suffering from GVHD
  • Blood-related family members: 35%–45% chance of GVHD
  • Unrelated: 60%–80% chance of GVHD

Part of this better acceptance by the body is because cord blood stem cells have rarely been contaminated with latent viruses. The same is not true for stem cells from other sources. For this reason, cord blood stem cells have been dubbed “privileged” because they haven’t been exposed to any diseases.

Learn all about cord blood banking

In 1991, scientists figured out that the umbilical cord itself is a rich source of a different type of stem cell. These cells have many special functions that fill a need in regenerative medicine. The body’s ability to regenerate tissues through its own stem cells is limited and slows further with age. For instance, a heart attack will leave behind scar tissue that lacks muscle or blood vessels. Any part of the heart, which is basically a big muscle, that can’t contract and limits the ability to pump blood could lead to further complications.

The stem cells from the umbilical cord not only share many benefits with cord blood but also have many benefits of their own including the ability to inhibit inflammation following tissue damage, to secrete growth factors that aid in tissue repair and to become one of many cell types found in your nervous system, sensory organs, circulatory tissues, skin, bone, cartilage and more. These stem cells are currently undergoing clinical trials for sports injuries, heart and kidney disease, ALS, wound healing and autoimmune diseases. It is in areas like these where cord tissue stem cells look promising.

Here is a further look at cord tissue’s benefits:

  • They’re young
    The stem cells found in cord tissue are at their peak ability to form other new stem cells. They also have a greater capacity to become one of many cell types. These abilities slow as the body ages. The immaturity of cells is also associated with a lower risk of an immune response, which can lead to chronic and even deadly complications.

  • They come in a higher yield
    The number of stem cells found in the cord tissue can be anywhere from three times to 14 times as many compared to other sources.

  • They're more prolific
    Cord tissue stem cells are more prolific, that is they reproduce to a greater degree, compared to similar cells from other sources.

  • They go straight to the source
    Cord tissue stem cells have the ability to transport to sites of physical harm or damage. This migratory capacity is its own benefit.

  • They're easy to collect
    As with cord blood, cord tissue is similarly easy to collect. After they have extracted the cord blood, the doctor will take a few inches of the cord for cryopreservation. There is no pain or risk for the baby or the mother.

Learn all about cord tissue banking

mom and daughter Saving your child’s stem cells is an investment towards your family’s future health. The value of one's health and its effects on the quality of life are difficult to quantify in financial terms. For most, it is probably priceless. Like saving for retirement when you're young or purchasing health insurance when you're perfectly healthy, the benefits of banking cord blood are not always immediate and can seem out of reach or too distant to worry about. It more personally and intimately affects people who know conditions run in their families, have seen first-hand the effects leukemia or sickle cell can have on an entire family or live with a loved one suffering from Alzheimer's or the effects of a stroke and aspire for the day when there will be ways to better treat such conditions. This is when it is important to remember that the diseases that cord blood treats can have an impact on anyone, from all walks of life, and with its potential in regenerative medicine still being discovered, it will hit closer to home for many more people as time passes.

If, however, one must make economic justifications, the cost of storing cord blood and tissue is much lower than other means of trying to combat the diseases it treats. These costs go beyond the $40,000 it currently takes to retrieve a match from a public cord bank and includes the precious weeks and months it takes to try to find a public match and the anxiety during that time wondering if there even is a match. In the end, the potential return on this investment in terms of financial costs and peace of mind is high but still subordinate to the fact that it can save the life of a loved one.