Umbilical Cord Blood Donation: The Basics

Author: OncoLink Team
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What is the umbilical cord?

While a baby is growing inside a woman's womb, the umbilical cord provides nutrients and oxygen needed for growth. The umbilical cord runs from the baby’s belly (place where the belly button will be) to the placenta in the mother’s womb. The cord contains a few large vessels that pass blood and nutrients to the baby from the mother.

What are stem cells?

Stem cells are a type of cell that can mature into many types of blood cells or immune cells. These stem cells are found in the bone marrow, the umbilical cord, and in the blood (in smaller amounts). The blood found in the umbilical cord (often called cord blood) contains many blood stem cells.

How can cord blood be used?

After the baby is born, the umbilical cord and placenta are no longer needed and are often discarded. But the blood left in the umbilical cord and placenta has lots of stem cells. These healthy stem cells can be collected and frozen to be used by patients who need an allogeneic transplant. Allogeneic stem cell transplant can be used to treat more than 70 diseases, including blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma, aplastic anemia, sickle cell anemia and more.

When a patient needs an allogeneic transplant, they may be able to get cells that “match” their cells from a family member, a person on the bone marrow registry or a cord blood unit. Cord blood used for transplants has been donated by families after the birth of their child.

How does a mother donate cord blood?

Unfortunately, not all areas have a cord blood bank that can take donations. If you are interested in donating cord blood, you should check the Be The Match listing of cord blood banks to see if there is one in your area. If there is, you should contact the bank for more information. There are strict requirements for health and exposure to viruses and infectious diseases. The cord blood bank will have you complete a consent form and health history prior to delivery. After the baby's delivery, the staff at your hospital will perform the collection.

What happens to the cord blood after it leaves the hospital?

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. The unit is tissue typed and listed on the bone marrow donor registry. The donation remains anonymous - the cord blood is identified by a number, never by name. It is kept frozen in a liquid nitrogen freezer. 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 many years of storage.

Once it is stored, it is available for a transplant if a patient needs it. When a patient needs a transplant, their providers can search a list of the donated cord blood units and the bone marrow donors on the registry to find a match.

Does it cost anything to donate cord blood?

There is no cost for donating. Unrelated donor cord blood banks will take care of the procedure and cover the cost of processing and storing your baby's cord blood unit.

Can my family use this cord blood if needed?

No, cord blood listed on the registry is available to anyone, but is not held for your family specifically. Parents do have the option of storing cord blood for use within their own family through a private bank for a fee.

Should I save my baby’s cord blood for my family’s future use?

Donating your child's cord blood or storing it for private use is a personal decision that only you can make. Families may feel pressured by the marketing from for-profit cord blood banks. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that private banking only be used if a family member has a current or potential need for a stem cell transplant due to a known illness or genetic defect.

The cord blood of a sibling has a 30% chance of matching their sibling. Donations to public banks are used 30 times more often than those stored at private banks.

How is cord blood helping patients?

Today, 11% of transplants are performed using cord blood. When a patient has a diverse racial or ethnic background, they have a harder time finding a match to receive stem cells from. Cord blood donations have helped these patients – 28% of transplants using cord blood were for patients of color. Donating this once discarded resource can help save a life.

References

Be The Match: Cord Blood and Transplants. https://bethematch.org/transplant-basics/cord-blood-and-transplants/

Ballen, K. (2017). Umbilical cord blood transplantation: challenges and future directions. Stem cells translational medicine6(5), 1312-1315.

BMTinfonet.org. Donating Umbilical Cord Blood. https://www.bmtinfonet.org/transplant-article/donating-umbilical-cord-blood

LLS.org. Cord blood stem cell transplant facts. https://www.lls.org/sites/default/files/file_assets/FS2_Cord_Blood_Transplantation_6_16FINAL.pdf

Shearer, W. T., Lubin, B. H., Cairo, M. S., & Notarangelo, L. D. (2017). Cord blood banking for potential future transplantation. Pediatrics140(5), e20172695.

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