When my daughter was born 22 years ago, we did everything possible to keep her safe and healthy: the right baby food, the “best” car seat and regular trips to the pediatrician. But we discarded one thing that could have been a lifesaver: her umbilical cord blood. In the 1980s, few people had ever heard of cord blood. Stem cells – the cells contained in cord blood, which are now routinely used to treat more than 70 serious illnesses – were known only to cell biologists. Little did we know the cure for so many diseases could lie within our own cells.
Luckily for us, our daughter has remained healthy. But she is one of the reasons I am so passionate about my work as CEO of Cryo-Cell Internat-ional. It seems that every week scientists discover a new type of stem cell or a new way to cure illness using stem cells. For African-Americans, the research stakes are especially high, because stem cell transplants only work if there is a genetic match between donor and recipient. If the recipient doesn’t have cord blood stored, doctors will seek a match in public banks, but finding one can be extremely difficult – often impossible – for African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, given genetic complexities. But when a successful match is found, the benefits of stem cells are immeasurable.
Umbilical cord blood is blood that remains in the umbilical cord and placenta at the time of birth. While the placenta, cord and cord blood are often discarded after delivery, cord blood is now recognized as a rich source of stem cells that can offer numerous health benefits. Cord blood stem cells have been used in more than 8,000 transplants to effectively treat more than 70 life-threatening diseases, such as leukemia, sickle cell disease and anemia. Researchers are exploring the role of stem cells in treating dozens of other conditions, including heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease. Given the proven benefit and expansive regenerative potential of cord blood stem cells, more parents are choosing to store cord blood or donate it to a public bank.
The use of cord blood stem cells was a major step forward in therapeutics because of these cells’ clear advantages over stem cells harvested from bone marrow. They are readily accessible as soon as they are needed and collection involves no pain or risk to the donor. Because they are adult cells, they offer a noncontroversial alternative to embryonic cells. Importantly, the body is more likely to accept cord blood stem cells, lowering the risk of rejection, and the cells taken from a newborn’s cord blood are a guaranteed match for that baby and have at least a 1-in-4 chance of matching a sibling.
Understanding the benefits of umbilical cord blood storage is especially crucial for the African-American community, where the scarcity of available donor matches is a major problem. According to the National Marrow Donor Program, there are only about 500,000 African-Americans in the bone marrow donor registry, compared to about three million Caucasian donors. Because the number of donors is disproportionately low, there are fewer samples available to those in need. Also, there is greater variation in tissue types among certain minorities, so finding donor matches often is extremely difficult. In fact, stem cells have been used to treat a number of diseases that commonly affect the African-American community, such as sickle cell disease, so it’s important that this therapeutic source be available to our community.
Families must understand their options to help protect their child’s future health, specifically the decision on whether to privately bank their baby’s cord blood, which can help ensure that healthy cells are available should families ever need them. Cryo-Cell has preserved umbilical cord blood since 1992 and my team continues to pioneer research on other types of stem cells to treat some of the most aggressive diseases today. We established the Cryo-Cell Center for Regenerative Medicine in 2007 to oversee research and discovery around stem cells that may have future therapeutic applications. We recently launched C’elle, a service to collect and store the stem cells found in menstrual blood. So far we’ve found that these easily-accessible and noncontroversial cells have dramatic potential and versatility to grow into important cell types, like heart muscle cells and nerve cells, suggesting they may one day be used to treat many serious diseases. Preclinical trials are currently under way for diabetes, heart disease and spinal cord injury.
In both my professional dedication to research and my personal commitment to better health, I encourage African-American families to educate themselves about the value of their baby’s cord blood and understand their options for banking their cells for future use.
Mercedes Walton is chairman and CEO of Cryo-Cell International Inc., a global leader in stem cell collection and preservation for the future medical needs of families.
By Mercedes Walton