How Umbilical Cord Blood Can Save Someone’s Life

February 9, 2017
Amy Thompson

Did you know that umbilical cord blood can help treat people with certain life-threatening diseases, including some types of cancers? That’s because the umbilical cord contains something very precious: hematopoietic stem cells.

Hematopoietic stem cells are the immature blood-forming cells found in everyone’s blood and bone marrow. These little cells have an important job. They change into the red or white blood cells and platelets your body needs to stay healthy. But for patients with a bone marrow disease, the process doesn’t work properly. A bone marrow transplant is often the best chance of survival and a possible cure, and umbilical cord blood offers a potential source of the needed replacement tissue for the transplant. When it is used, this may be called a cord blood transplant. More than 25,000 transplants using umbilical cord blood have taken place worldwide.

Even better, umbilical cord blood is simple to donate. Typically, the umbilical cord, placenta, and any blood still in the cord are thrown away after a baby’s birth. share on twitter .

Interested in donating?

The actual donation of umbilical cord blood is a painless procedure that’s safe for the mother and the baby. There are just 2 steps the doctor has to take after the baby’s birth:

  1. Cut and clamp the cord

  2. Collect about 3 to 5 fluid ounces of blood (about ½ cup) from the umbilical cord and placenta

The entire process takes around 5 minutes.

If you are considering donating, talk with your obstetrician or other member of your health care team. The cord blood bank your hospital works with needs to be contacted before the 34th week of pregnancy. You can also reach out to the nonprofit National Marrow Donor Program, which has as a nationwide bone marrow and cord blood registry, for a list of hospitals that work with cord banks.

You will have a series of simple health checks and then you will need to give your consent to the cord blood bank to donate and store the cord blood. Public storage is free, and it makes cord blood is available for any person in need. You can also choose private storage, which means it’s only available for your use at a cost. 

What happens to the cord blood after it’s donated?

  • First, a lab will test it to find out the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) typing. The special combination of HLA proteins makes each person’s blood “tissue type” unique. HLA-matched bone marrow is less likely to cause a possible side effect of transplantation called graft vs. host disease (GVHD). GVHD causes the immune cells in the transplanted tissue to recognize the recipient’s body as “foreign” and attack it. 

  • Next, the cord blood bank registers the cord blood’s HLA type on the donor registry. The cord blood bank stores the cord blood in a freezer until a match with a patient’s HLA type is found.

  • Then, doctors search the donor registry on behalf of their patients in need of a transplant. The goal is to find an HLA match for patients whose immediate family didn’t have an HLA match. In 2016, about 14,000 people — from very young children up to older adults — in the United States needed to find a donor for their bone marrow transplant from outside their close family.

And, it could be your donation that saves a life.