Advance with MUSC Health

The Facts About Storing Your Baby's Cord Blood

Advance With MUSC Health
June 24, 2021
Dr. Scott Sullivan talking with patients.

Cord blood banking has been available to new parents for more than 20 years. Many physician researchers recommend banking cord blood for future use, but in reality, the chances of a child’s developing a condition that can be treated with his or her own cord blood are slim. We talked with Scott Sullivan, M.D., MUSC Health professor of obstetrics and gynecology and vice chairman for the MUSC Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology to get the facts and learn what he tells his patients.

Q. What is cord blood?

A. When a fetus is in the womb, blood is transferred between the fetus and the mother through the umbilical cord, which contains blood at all times. Immediately after the baby is born and is transitioning to life outside the womb, for a short period of time when the cord is cut, a small amount of blood remains in the cord until the placenta is removed.

Q. Why do some parents store their baby’s cord blood?

A. Cord blood has special properties that other blood does not have. It’s full of stem cells, which are immature cells that have the potential to transform into various types of cells. They also exist in multiple other places: our fatty tissue, in adult blood and in developing embryos. These stem cells can be used to treat many conditions, so some parents choose to bank the cord blood in case it is needed for their child or another family member. Parents can also donate the cord blood to a public bank for use by someone in need. Collection at birth is the easiest way to obtain these cells. If the blood isn’t collected, it’s discarded.

Q. How is it used?

A. Cord blood stem cells are used to treat genetic disorders, immune disorders, blood disease and some cancers. Cord blood often cannot be used to treat a genetic disease or malignancy in the same individual because the blood would contain the same genetic material. In children, it’s more commonly used to treat sickle cell anemia and the effects of chemotherapy for leukemia treatment.

Although chemotherapy is very effective against childhood leukemia, it wipes out a child’s bone marrow. Cord blood replenishes the red and white blood cells that are damaged because of treatment. This process is called a stem cell transplant. Cord blood can also be used to treat a sibling who is ill as long as the blood is a match. Typically, the probability of a good match between siblings is high.

Q. Why is storing cord blood controversial?

A. Collecting and storing cord blood for personal use is expensive, over $1,000 upfront and with a yearly fee, and not available to patients who cannot afford to pay for it. Uses for cord blood are still being discovered; scientists and storage companies say medical science may be able to do amazing things with it, but currently the chance of needing cord blood is fairly low.

Q. How prevalent is the practice?

A. The practice of saving cord blood has been around for more than 20 years, but only a minority of patients choose to do so for personal use or for a public donation. Public donor banks charge very little or are free, but public donation is not available at every hospital and is not available locally in South Carolina.

Q. What do you advise patients about saving cord blood?

A. As part of our obstetrics education, we always educate our patients about the availability of saving cord blood or donating it. For patients who have a family history of conditions that might be treatable with cord blood, such as sickle cell, leukemia or lymphoma, we would recommend that they consider saving cord blood. In fact, some companies will store it for free in those situations. For average patients -- the vast majority -- we tell them the facts and what the science says so they can make an informed decision. And we try not to create anxiety. It’s important to note that the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend storing cord blood. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology is more neutral.

Q. What is the process of storing cord blood?

A. The process of storing your own baby’s cord blood is simple and takes about 10 minutes. Parents are provided a kit by the storage company. After the umbilical cord is clamped, the obstetrics team draws the blood with a needle, puts it into a bag and ships it to the storage lab. Donating to public banks in other states is a complicated process.

Q. What are the pros and cons of donating or saving cord blood?

A. Pros: Saving cord blood is painless, quick and risk free for the mother and baby, and it can be used to treat about 80 conditions. That number is expected to increase. If needed, it can be lifesaving. The stem cells in cord blood are less likely than bone marrow to be rejected after transplant.

Cons: The option to save or donate cord blood is not available everywhere, and it’s expensive. Research on cord blood is ongoing, but the information can be confusing. We know that cord blood survives at least 20 years, but no one knows just how long it does last. Moreover, many of the conditions that cord blood can be used for are extremely rare.
Some parents feel guilty if they cannot afford to do it, but in reality, only 2 or 3 individuals out of 5,000 will actually need a stem cell transplant by age 20. We try to balance out that counseling for our patients and get them to a comfortable place.

I tell my patients that they can go to a non-industry supported site, The Parent’s Guide to Cord Blood, which has extensive information and is run by a doctor who had a child with one of these conditions.