Having a Baby, Saving Lives
The Byproducts of Birth Can Be Saved in Case of Illness, or Used to Aid in a Plethora of Medical Conditions
The birth of a baby is no longer the gift of just a single life.
Recent advances in medical technology have made it possible to use blood from the umbilical cord and other tissue to treat a broadening range of medical conditions, from cancer to eye injuries. One birth can extend, maybe even save, the lives of dozens of other people.
Through services available in Tallahassee, parents can bank this material in case their own children need it later in life, or donate it to help a stranger survive a medical crisis. The procedure is simple and painless and only uses material that would otherwise be discarded as medical waste.
“It’s pretty amazing that cord blood has something in it that can save people’s lives,” said Dr. William Slayton, a pediatric oncologist at Shands Hospital in Gainesville who has used birth material to treat children from the Tallahassee area. “It’s full of these life-sustaining cells.”
The Materials of Life
There are two basic types of material from a birth that can be used later to treat illnesses and injuries.
Cord blood contains stem cells that migrate to the bone marrow, where they mature and produce red and white blood cells and platelets.
Eventually, stem cells move out of the marrow and into the bloodstream. All human bodies contain stem cells; cord blood cells are immature and easier to transplant because there is less risk of rejection.
“They will find their way into somebody’s bone marrow and produce blood for the life of the patient,” Slayton said.
The amniotic membrane is the part of the placenta that protects and nourishes a fetus prior to birth.
The placenta typically is discarded after birth, but the membrane contains collagen, protein and growth factors with significant regenerative properties, said David Hill, CEO of telaGen LLC, a Tallahassee-based placenta donation coordinator.
That tissue can be processed into grafts that aid the healing process.
“They help the body get better faster by giving the body more of the material it needs,” Hill said.
Blood in the Bank
The collection and storage of birth material is a straightforward process.
Mark Locascio, CEO of MiracleCord in Chicago, said patients complete a health history questionnaire and an informed consent form, then the company ships a collection kit directly to them.
When the mom-to-be goes into labor, she takes the collection kit to the hospital with her and lets the doctor know to collect the cord blood. Once it’s collected, a medical courier service picks up the cord blood and transports it to a storage facility, where it’s cryogenically frozen, Locascio said.
The cost is about $1,200 to $2,000 for the initial collection, then about $125 to $175 a year for storage.
Tallahassee mom Cameron Ulrich heard about cord-blood banking from a friend — who worked at Cord Blood Registry — when she was pregnant with her daughter in 2007.
“It just hit home, being a first-time new mom,” she said. “This made a lot of sense to me.”
Her experience was hassle free, she said.
“They just put a syringe into the umbilical cord after it’s cut,” Ulrich said. “It does not require a procedure for the mom.”
Most parents just keep cord blood until their children are into early adulthood, but Locascio said the current thinking is that they will keep indefinitely.
Placenta donation works much the same way, said Erin Ryals, clinical director at North Florida Women’s Clinic.
Moms-to-be are given information about donation, and the choice is left up to them. There are restrictions — patients have to be screened for communicable diseases, and only placentas from C-section births are viable. (Hill, with telaGen, said placentas are contaminated with bacteria during vaginal births.)
According to Ryals, about 20 clinic patients a month agree to donate their placentas.
“There’s no reason not to,” she said. “They’re just discarded after the baby is born.” Collection is handled by a technician who works with the delivery team.
‘A Complicated Puzzle’
Donated placental tissue is processed into medical material, or dehydrated and preserved for future use.
The regenerative tissue can be used just about anywhere, literally from head to foot. Pieces of the amniotic membrane have been used in corneal transplants, to treat spinal injuries, on severe burns and for diabetic wounds on feet.
A single placenta can be used to help up to 50 people, according to Ryals, from the women’s clinic.
That always surprises expecting parents when they are approached about donations, said Hill.
“They didn’t really have any idea they could help so many people,” he said. “About 99 percent say yes.”
Stem cells from cord blood are a little more complicated.
Using stem cells from one person to treat an illness in another person is a process known as a transplant, although it is more akin to a transfusion. Stem cells enter via an IV and make their way to the bone marrow through the blood.
Stem cells can be used in this way to help treat blood disorders like Fanconi anemia (the one affecting Jimbo Fisher’s son, Ethan), immune diseases such as Kostmann syndrome and cancers like leukemia.
One example of how stem cells are used would be to aid in aggressive cancer treatment. Sometimes extremely high doses of chemotherapy and radiation are “the key to curing a patient,” Slayton said.
The problem is that the high doses necessary to knock out the cancer also may wipe out the patient’s bone marrow, the organ which produces blood. An infusion of stem cells can help by strengthening the bone marrow and helping the body to produce blood cells, Slayton said.
Where it gets complicated is in matching the right stem cells with the right patient.
According to Slayton, the chances of a person not related to you being a match are 1 in a million.
“It’s sort of a complicated puzzle,” he said.
That’s why parents choose to bank cord blood. In the event the child develops an illness that can be treated with stem cells, they already have matching stem cells on hand, significantly decreasing the chances of rejection.
And stem cells from one child are more likely to be a match for siblings or even the parents.
“It can be life-saving,” Slayton said.
And the good news: While stem cells already are used to treat more than 80 diseases, there are hundreds more uses currently being evaluated in studies and clinical trials.