Umbilical Cord Blood Donation: The Basics

National Marrow Donor Program
Copyright © 2007 National Marrow Donor Program
Last Modified: September 12, 2007

Before a baby is born, the umbilical cord is a lifeline, providing the nutrients and oxygen needed for growth. After birth, that lifeline can help patients with leukemia, lymphoma or other diseases.

After delivery, the umbilical cord and placenta are no longer needed and are often discarded. But the blood remaining in the umbilical cord and placenta is rich with blood-forming cells. These healthy blood-forming cells can be collected and stored so they can be used by a patient who needs them.

Once a mother has decided to donate her child's umbilical cord blood she should contact the cord blood bank in her community before the 34 th week of pregnancy. The cord blood bank will then send a consent form and maternal health history form for the mother to complete prior to delivery. After the baby's delivery trained staff will perform the collection.

Like bone marrow, cord blood is rich in the blood-forming cells that can be used in transplants for patients with leukemia, lymphoma and many other life-threatening diseases. (These cells are not embryonic stem cells.) When a patient needs a transplant, cord blood may be one option for them, in addition to using their own cells, cells from a family member or from an unrelated donor found through the National Marrow Donor ProgramRegistry.

After the baby's birth, the umbilical cord is clamped, breaking the link between the baby and the placenta. After the delivery, b lood from the umbilical cord and placenta is collected into a sterile bag, given an identification number and stored temporarily. This collected blood is called a cord blood unit. Typically, the day after the baby is born, a sample of the mother's blood is tested for infectious diseases and within 1-2 days, the cord blood unit is delivered to the public cord blood bank.

After the cord blood unit arrives at the cord blood bank, it is tested to make sure it has no signs of infection or other medical concerns. It is checked to be sure it is large enough (has enough blood-forming cells) to be used for a transplant. If there are too few cells, the cord blood may be used for research to improve transplants for future patients, or it may be discarded. The unit is tissue typed and listed on the NMDP Registry. To protect the family's privacy, the cord blood is identified by a number, never by name. It is then frozen in a liquid nitrogen freezer and stored. The umbilical cord blood can be stored for a very long time. Studies are ongoing to determine the storage life of cord blood units and have shown good cell recovery after seven, ten, and twelve years of storage.

Once it is stored, it is available for a transplant if a patient needs it. Doctors search among the donated cord blood units and the bone marrow donors on the NMDP Registry to find a match when their patient needs a transplant.

On average, approximately three to five fluid ounces are collected from the umbilical cord. If the number of blood-forming cells in the cord blood unit is too small to benefit the patient, the unit may still be used for research.

Usually, the consent process begins prior to the delivery of the child. While each cord blood bank has a different consent process, usually the cord blood bank will obtain the mother's written permission to collect the cord blood before the onset of labor. The mother is also asked to provide a blood sample for infectious disease testing, and to fill out the family health history forms. All information collected will be kept confidential. The mother will be informed of any tests performed on a sample of her blood or the umbilical cord blood with any significant results that require follow-up action.

Discuss your decision with your physician or midwife. Not every hospital collects cord blood donations, so you will need to see if your hospital participates. If they do not, there are other options for donating cord blood. In addition, some parents may want to store cord blood in a private bank. This is a personal decision, which you should discuss with your physician or midwife. To find out more about the donation process from the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP). To learn more about bone marrow and umbilical cord blood donation is available on the NMDP Web site.


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