Umbilical Cord Cells: Godsend or Gimmick?

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"There's nothing particularly wrong with doing that, but it's not very useful," says Dr. Cladd Stevens, medical director for the New York Blood Center's National Cord Blood Program.

"I think most of the professional organizations, the pediatric society and obstetric society, recognize that it's not very useful."

"A single individual has about a one-in-one-thousand chance of needing a bone marrow transplant in his or her lifetime, so banking does not make much sense as an insurance policy," Freed says. But, he adds, "In individual cases, such as a family member's illness that might be treated with cord blood, retaining cord blood could make sense."

Critics go one step further, saying that advertisements used by such private banks prey on the fears of new parents.

"I'm sure there are a certain amount of businesses and people with less than admirable scruples who take advantage of the public fears," Petersen says. "Those companies would blacken the eye of the business as a whole."

"Some private companies do push the idea that this is biological insurance," Stevens says. "That's the main selling point for private banks, but the real question is whether or not that ever pans out in reality."

However, for a select few families, private cord cell banking could prove to be much more useful.

"There is one circumstance in which cord blood ought to be stored for a family member, and that is when we know in advance that there's a family member that's already been affected -- an older child with leukemia, for example, or a genetic disease," Stevens says.

Public Banking Could Save Many Lives

Parents who choose not to seek the services of a private bank have another option as well -- they can donate the cord cells to a public bank, which will, in turn, donate them to those in need.

"We initially thought about private banking, and I think most parents that think about it probably do, because your first thought is 'oh, my God, what happens if something happens to my baby?'" says 35-year-old new mother Angie Bongaarts of Chicago.

But Bongaarts and her husband discussed the matter, and together they agreed that since they had no family history of leukemia, they would, instead, send their daughter's umbilical cord to a public bank.

"We figured that there was probably a better chance for the blood going for use for someone who did have a problem right now," she says.

Two-and-a-half months after they donated their baby's cord blood to a public bank, Bongaarts and her husband were notified that the cells were used to help a young man with an immune problem.

Bongaarts says the prospect that her daughter's cells may have saved someone's life was a special gift.

"I was euphoric," she says. "It's been nice to think back on for the past couple weeks, to know that we were able to do that for someone."

According to Stevens, Bongaarts' story is not unique.

"We estimate there are probably 10,000 patients around the world who have benefited from the fact that a mother donated her baby's cord blood for anybody who needed it," she says.

"There are people who are alive now who otherwise would've been dead if there hadn't been a mother who donated their cord blood."

Largely due to the success stories seen thus far with public cord cell banking, many experts say a fully stocked national registry of 150,000 samples -- a project currently in development -- could save many lives.

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