Cord Blood Banking: Marketing Before Medicine?

Are private cord blood banking firms banking on parents' emotions?

ByABC News
May 6, 2010, 4:16 PM

May 6, 2010— -- The advertisements for cord blood banking appear in magazines, online, in doctor's offices and on Facebook. Oftentimes, an expression of interest by expectant parents prompts an invitation by private banking companies to a fancy informational dinner.

ABC News sent a producer with a hidden camera to one of these informational dinners to investigate what expectant parents are being told -- and found the benefits of cord blood banking may not always match the pitch.

"You have this one-time opportunity," said Dr. Albert Sassoon, an obstetrician-gynecologist in New York, at an informational dinner for expecting parents. "If I was doing this today, I would definitely bank the cord blood, no doubt about it."

Many consider it science on the cutting edge: Umbilical cord blood rich in stem cells obtained once a child is born can be used to treat rare conditions and holds promise for the future. And with 4 million births in the U.S. each year, private cord blood banking is a growing industry.

In their marketing material, many banking firms tout an impressive list of 70 to 80 diseases that purportedly are treated by stem cell transplants. However, research has not yet proven that stem cells from cord blood work for all of the listed conditions.

"Presently, we treat over 80 life threatening diseases," said Sassoon, who was present at the dinner sponsored by ViaCord, a private cord blood banking firm. "With the amount of diseases that we treat today, by the time you reach the age of 70, you'll have approximately the chance of receiving a stem cell transplant -- one in 200, one in 217."

But many experts told ABC News that the chance that anyone will benefit by their own cord blood -- which is what is stored in private cord banking -- is much lower than that.

"The chance of somebody needing their own cord blood is extremely, extremely low," said Dr. Machi Scaradavou, pediatric oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and medical director of the New York Blood Center's national cord blood program.

In fact, Sassoon's statistics provided to a crowd of many parents-to-be comes from a 2008 study published in Biology of Blood and Marrow Transplantation that included a variety of stem cell transplants from bone marrow and other sources. The stem cell transplants were not specific to cord blood.