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What Is Cord Blood Banking, Anyway?

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Many parents sign up to freeze their newborn’s stem cells by opting for cord blood banking, which may be later requested for life-saving procedures and research, such as for newborn osteoporosis and cerebral palsy.

The business practices of some private cord blood banks are being called into question. The American Academic of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) both released statements in the late ‘90s criticizing the use of private banks and their marketing approaches. Instead, they recommended a donation of cord blood to public banks to be made accessible and free to anyone with a need for it.

Some doctors believe families take on an unnecessary financial burden when a child rarely uses their own cord blood and the cord was once considered to be medical waste. Opinions have changed since earlier decades, and parents and doctors have varying opinions on whether to use public or private cord blood banks. What is cord blood banking, anyway, and what’s the big fuss about?

What’s up With Cord Blood?

The blood remaining in the umbilical cord once a baby has been delivered has been realized to be an excellent source of stem cells, similar to the ones located in your bone marrow but more abundant. These cord blood stem cells have been utilized in transplants treating about 75 diseases that are congenital or acquired, including lymphoma, sickle cell disease, leukemia and certain metabolic disorders.

While stem cells are retracted through an excruciating medical procedure and restored in the body, there’s only one shot to get them — right after the baby is born. A significantly less painful way of obtaining these stem cells is by collecting umbilical cord blood.

How Did Cord Blood Banks Become a Thing?

The first successful cord blood stem cell transplant occurred in a sibling-to-sibling transfer in 1988 to treat Fanconi’s anemia, a type of bone marrow failure syndrome. Since this successful transplant, many private cord blood banks have opened their doors.

They appear to have every American household’s address on tap, and that’s where the questionable marking tactics come into play. Many advertisements in the mail come off sounding like a snake oil or used car salesman offering a once-in-a-lifetime chance, comparing cord blood banking to life insurance that protects your family from unforeseeable disease and mayhem. Then comes the guilt trip: It’s something you do out of responsibility and love for your family.

However, there’s truth in the guilt trip with the possibility of saving lives with the contribution, particularly your own child’s, should a major health concern ever arise. For parents, it seems like stem cells are a holy grail — a potential fix-all as successful findings from studies continue to emerge. Cord blood banks are an increasingly popular thing.

Are Private Blood Banks Worth the Cost?

The collection cost of storing cord blood privately may be between $500 and $2,500, and some banks continue to charge $100 to $300 every year for storage fees. On the bright side, that’s cheaper than keeping Grandma’s antiques in a storage unit for years.

Cord blood is best used in transplants for children and young adults, since the adult body is larger and requires larger applications. It’s smart to take advantage of private cord blood banks when you have a high-risk family member, child or sibling who would benefit from treatment by cord blood. If the stem cells are ever needed, you would call your cord blood bank to have them released to your medical provider. Parents-to-be receive a simple collection kit you take with you for your physician or midwife to conduct the collection, and a medical courier picks it up.

First, ask your family members about their medical history and conduct the proper tests before deciding to contribute to a cord blood bank, whether you decide on a private bank or a public one — where you may not be able to access the stem cells.

Private banks store the cord blood for a family’s personal use only, and if a child develops a disease later, the stem cells may be accessed. Choose public banks when your family members aren’t at high risk for life-threatening or debilitating disease — you could save a child's life.

Cord blood banks are regulated by the FDA, which has developed stringent standards for regulating cord blood storage and collection. You should also develop personal standards for choosing the best cord blood bank for your family by asking the right questions:

  • When considering public banks: Does my delivery hospital have an existing relationship with a public cord blood bank? Where can I get information about public banks that offer a mail-in donation?
  • When considering private banks: How financially stable is this cord blood bank, and what happens to the sample if the bank goes out of business? Are samples processed in-house? What collections and handling procedures exist? What additional fees must be paid after collection and when?

These questions will help families make informed decisions on whether a private or public cord blood bank is right for them. Don’t sign up for the first one you receive information about in the mail — do your research.

Both public and private cord blood banks benefit families by offering a precious and less painful alternative for stem cell sourcing. Families should consider reputable and established private blood banks if they have a family member at a high risk of developing diseases treatable by cord blood stem cells in the future, and other families should consider donating cord blood to a public bank if they would like to help save the lives of others.

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