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Women Encouraged To Donate Their Baby’s Cord Blood

Evening Edition

Above: Using stem cells from human embryos remains controversial. But there's another wellspring of stem cells that draws virtually no opposition.

Aired 4/13/12 on KPBS News.

A new program at San Diego's Sharp Mary Birch Hospitals offers women a chance to donate their baby's cord blood at no cost.

— Using stem cells from human embryos remains controversial. There’s another wellspring of stem cells that draws virtually no opposition. But this other source often goes to waste.

At San Diego’s Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women, more babies are born every year than in any other hospital in California.

Each baby comes into the world with something that could save someone’s life: blood from their umbilical cord.

Cord blood is rich in stem cells, which have the potential to develop into a variety of different cell types in the body.

Collecting cord blood is a simple and painless procedure, said Kristina Lopez, nursing specialist at Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women.

“Cord blood is actually collected from the segment of cord that is outside of mom, because your cord is long,” Lopez explained. “So once it’s clamped close to the baby and cut, you have a segment of cord that is available for the physician then, to insert the collection needle into that segment of cord into a vessel. And then it fills. Mothers are usually not aware. There’s a lot going on with moms when they have their babies,” Lopez pointed out.

Once the blood is collected, it’s tested, processed, and put into cold storage. Families can pay a private bank to store it for their own use. If it’s donated to a public bank, it goes into the National Marrow Donor Program registry. Then it’s distributed according to need.

Doctors say only one unit of cord blood can make a difference for children who are fighting leukemia and other forms of cancer.

At Rady Children’s Hospital in Kearny Mesa, Dr. Jennifer Willert visited with one of her patients.

“We’re gonna bring you into the hospital today, a little bit of pain medicine, and some fluid,” Dr. Willert said to the little girl, who was sitting in a wheelchair. “Can you tell me about your weekend?”

The pediatric oncologist said she often uses cord blood to treat her patients.

“And we’re increasingly being able to use umbilical cord blood as the stem cell source of choice,” Dr. Willert said. “The other thing is it doesn’t cause as much graft versus host disease, which is the cells from the donor recognizing the recipient as foreign, and that can cause a lot of pretty awful problems. And you want to minimize or have none of that, but you still want to have the graft versus leukemia, or graft versus malignancy response, and we still do see that with cord blood.”

Cord blood is used to treat a variety of diseases in adults, too.

But believe it or not, the vast majority of cord blood is thrown out.

Some San Diego doctors are doing what they can to change that.

OBGYN Tina Ziainia said people just don’t know enough about cord blood.

“For example,” she said, “I had a patient that I described this to, and she was saying, well, I don’t know if I want to donate it, because if they take my stem cell, maybe they’ll clone my baby. So, I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there.”

Dr. Ziainia said she makes it a point to talk to all of her patients about cord blood.

“If you wouldn’t privately bank it for yourself, you could donate it,” Dr. Ziainia pointed out. “You can actually donate the blood, and then it would go off and be stored there, and then it can be used for other people.”

Private banking isn’t cheap. Companies can charge more than $2000 to collect the blood, and $150 a year to store it.

Dr. Ziainia tries to put that in context.

“I always tell some of my patients, they spend more money at Babies R Us, buying all this paraphernalia that their kid is going to grow out of or not even use,” she said with a laugh. “So if they have the money, then definitely privately bank it, and any hospital in San Diego you can do that on.”

But Sharp Mary Birch is the only hospital in the county that allows women to donate their cord blood.

Thanks to a partnership with a company called StemCyte, public donors at Sharp Mary Birch don’t have to pay a dime. Since the program started in January, Sharp has collected nearly 100 donations.

“Moms who want to donate their cord blood need to decide early,” said nurse specialist Kristina Lopez. “Moms need to actually be pre-screened, to be eligible to donate their cord blood. They may not just walk into the facility and say I would like to donate.”

Lopez said whether moms want to donate their cord blood or bank it themselves, it’s crucial not to throw it out.

“Let’s start saving it, saving it, and hopefully save some lives down the road,” she said.

Video by Katie Euphrat

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