It's hard to ignore the ads for cord blood banks, offering a lifetime of protection for your children. If you're an expectant mom, there's information coming at you constantly from your doctor's office, magazines, online, and perhaps even your yoga class.
Such is the case for expectant mom Ursula Lyon, who saw an ad during a yoga class.
"I'm really early in my pregnancy so I am just getting to the stage where I'm exploring and trying to understand the things I need to prepare for," said Lyon.
Some parents-to-be are sold on the advertising that banking their child's cord blood could potentially treat an array of diseases the child, or his siblings, could encounter in their lives. Other parents-to-be may find all the promises too good to be true.
"I certainly should know more about it, I imagine because it is everywhere," said Kristina Ashley. "It just sounded a little science-fictiony or something to me."
Cord blood, which is harvested from the umbilical cord right after a baby is born, is marketed as a treatment for diseases such as leukemia and sickle cell disease, and as a potential source of cells for regenerative medicine – a cutting-edge field of medicine studying how to repair tissues damaged by everything from heart disease to cerebral palsy.
Cord blood can be banked two ways – in public banks for use by anyone in need whose cell type is a match, and in private banks where it is only available to the family of the child who donated.
There is little doubt that scientists believe umbilical cord blood stem cells hold promise for the future. Cord blood stem cells are already used to treat blood disorders such as aplastic anemia, and research is underway to determine if they can treat other more common conditions like type 1 diabetes. But many experts question whether many companies's marketing materials confuse or even mislead parents about the usefulness of private banking.
Private cord blood banking costs $2,000 to $3,000 for the initial fee, and around another $100 per year for storage. While that may seem like a hefty price tag, many expectant parents may see it as an investment in their child's long-term health.
Tracey Dones of Hicksville, N.Y., paid to bank her son Anthony's cord blood. But four months after he was born, Anthony was diagnosed with osteopetrosis, a rare disease that causes the body to produce excess bone, leads to blindness, and can be fatal if left untreated.
Tracey said she felt lucky since she banked Anthony's cord blood with a private company. And Osteopetrosis is one of 80 diseases listed by many cord blood companies in their marketing material as treatable with stem cells.
"When they mentioned the stem cells, I said, oh I banked his cord blood, we could use that," said Dones. "And immediately they said 'absolutely not.'"
Osteopetrosis is a genetic disease, so this means that doctors could use a sibling's cord blood cells to treat Anthony, but they cannot use his own cells because the disease is in every cell in his body. In fact, a majority of the diseases listed in private banking firms' marketing material as treatable with stem cells are genetic diseases.
Marketing materials by Viacord and Cord Blood Registry, the two largest companies, do not mention that cord blood stem cells cannot be used by the child for genetic diseases, although the fine print does state that cord blood may not be effective for all of the listed conditions.