Leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer, affects the blood-forming cells in the bone marrow. It is often treated with stem cell transplants that replace the patient's bone marrow cells with stem cells donated by a healthy individual. Successful transplant depends on finding a donor who is a close genetic match to the patient. That's a particular challenge for patients from racial and ethnic minority groups, who may die while waiting for a matching donor.
But a mostly-untapped source of genetically diverse stem cells is right under our noses: Blood left in the umbilical cord after a baby is born. Though it has typically been discarded as medical waste, this blood has real value, as a Packard Children's press release explains:
With the right system in place, cord blood can be collected at no risk to a new mother and baby, and given to unrelated patients who need the stem cells. This public system is distinct from private cord blood banks, which charge families fees to collect cord blood and store it for their own possible use.
"The chance of needing banked cord blood for your own child is very remote," said Maurice Druzin, MD, division chief of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at Packard Children's. Because blood cancers are so rare, very few families who privately bank cord blood use the cells, Druzin explained. "But these cells are potentially lifesaving for someone else."
The more than 4,000 babies born at Packard Children's each year reflect the diversity of the Bay Area's population. And the hospital's new cord blood donation program will give all its new moms the option to donate their baby's cord blood to an international stem cell registry that can be searched by hematologists and oncologists whose patients need stem cell transplants.
Meanwhile, Packard Children's has already established a track record of using cord blood donated elsewhere to treat blood cancers and rare inherited blood diseases, explained Rajni Agarwal, MD, the clinical director for pediatric stem cell transplantation at Packard Children's:
Agarwal is excited that Packard Children's is coming full circle by collecting cord blood donations as well as using them. "Using cord blood for stem cell transplant is the biggest advance in this field in the past 20 years," she concluded. "Establishing our new cord blood collection program is a very big deal."
Photo by Norbert von der Groeben shows Stanford law Professor Amalia Kessler, JD, and her family. During Kessler's first pregnancy (with Stella, at right) in 2009, she and her husband Adam Talcott were surprised that they could not find a Bay Area hospital that accepted cord blood donations. Baby Ari, at left, became the first to have his cord blood donated through the new Packard Children's collection program when he was born in 2011.