Stem cells are the appropriately dubbed “master” cells, based on their ability to regenerate and transform themselves into the cells that form all other tissues, organs and systems in the body. These cells can be taken from bone marrow, peripheral blood, or cord blood (from placenta).
While research has gained momentum in the last decade or so as topic of mainstream discussion, the technology has circled the medical field since the late 1980s. The first cord blood stem cell transplant, done a lot earlier than you’d probably think, was performed in 1988 in Paris, France, on a child with a life threatening form of anemia.
Fast-forward a relatively short four decades later, and various types of stem cells are now used to treat more than 80 serious diseases, including leukemia, cancers and blood disorders. For regenerative purposes, cord blood stem cells are gaining even more respect for their ability to repair damaged tissues and organs. Regenerative purposes include treatment for brain injury, cerebral palsy, heart disease, juvenile diabetes, spinal cord injury and stroke/infant stroke.
While research has made leaps and bounds, cord blood cells specifically have taken center stage over bone marrow and peripheral blood transplants for several reasons.
Unlike bone marrow and peripheral transplants, the use of umbilical cord stem cells is completely non-invasive – extraction of the cells poses no risk to mother or child, as it is taken from the placenta of the umbilical cord after birth. In comparison to the controversial use of embryonic stem cells, cord blood cells are proven safe in the human body.
Additionally, umbilical cord stem cells do not have to be a perfect match to the host; the transplant will work even if it is a partial match. And that match carries with it a reduced risk of Graft-Versus-Host Disease (GVHD), a complication where the donor’s immune cells attack the host’s healthy tissue. The immune cells present in cord blood are found to be less likely to attack tissue in the host body, and in instances where GVHD was present, the complications were less severe.
Cord blood stem cells are also less likely to carry certain viruses, such as cytomegalovirus (CMV), a fatal infection that strikes transplant recipients, but is especially dangerous to fetuses and infants. Roughly 50% of the adult population in the United States carries CMV in the form of latent virus. The disease is especially dangerous to fetuses and infants; however, less than 1% of babies are born with CMV.
In black and white, the benefits of banking umbilical cord stem cells seem to outweigh the risks, though it is worth mentioning a few concerns.
Because of the limited quantity of cord blood cells a donor can offer, there is a relatively small volume of cells available compared to what can be obtained in peripheral or bone. Donor cord blood cells are only available one time, if the first transplants fails, the second set of cord blood stem cells will have to come from a different donor.
The patient receiving the transplant runs the slight risk of possible rare genetic disorders that were not detected in testing of the cord blood stem cells – though chances of this are 1 in 10, 000.
The door to the future of research is wide open. Technology and research has made significant advances in recent decades, and the regenerative ability of cord blood stem cells is a catalyst for tackling some of the most serious diseases.
“Regenerative medicine is the next evolution of medical treatments… Virtually any disease that results from malfunctioning, damaged, or failing tissues may be potentially cured…” – U. S.