Umbilical cord blood banking can save a life
- Julie Cabatit-Alegre () - April 4, 2006 - 12:00am
It is what you might call a form of "biological insurance," says Dr. Teo Cheng Peng, a consultant on haematooncology at the Gleneagles Hospital in Singapore and a recent visitor in the country. Dr. Teo was referring to the medical technology cord blood banking, which involves the collection of blood from the umbilical cord after it is cut, and storage in a modern laboratory for future use by a diseased family member. Stored blood stem cells provide a treatment option, should the need arise in the future.

Dr. Teo is the medical director of Stemcord Pte. Ltd., the pioneer in cord blood banking in Singapore which is licensed by the Singapore Ministry of Health. It employs stringent criteria set by the American Association of Blood Banks and, along with its state-of-the-art laboratory facilities and pool of medical experts, it has stored more than 6,000 samples within the past five years since it opened.

"The umbilical cord is usually discarded along with the placenta following the birth of a baby," Dr. Teo observes. "However, it is now known that "cord blood‚" or blood that remains in the umbilical cord and placenta following a delivery, contains abundant stem cells which may be used to treat many diseases."

A South Korean woman who was paralyzed and bedridden for 20 years after an accident was able to walk again with the help of a walking frame after scientists repaired her damaged spine using stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood.

"Stem cells are the building blocks of all body parts and organs of a human being," Dr. Teo explains. "Stem cells are unique primitive cells that can differentiate themselves into a variety of body cell types such as red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, liver and kidney cells."

To date, more than 45 disorders can be treated with stem cells from umbilical cord blood. Like donated bone marrow, which is the most common source of stem cells at present, umbilical cord blood can be used to treat various genetic disorders that affect the blood and immune system, leukemia and certain cancers, and some inherited disorders of body chemistry. Moreover, stem cells used in life-saving treatments are considered safer than bone marrow transplants. There is no personal risk and there is no pain. And unlike using stem cells taken from embryos, there are no ethical issues arising from the collection or usage of stem cells from cord blood.

"The umbilical cord and placenta are discarded after delivery, and if the cord blood is not stored, valuable stem cells will be lost," Dr. Teo says.

Collection of these unique cells is only possible and available at the time of birth of the child. Cord blood or stem cells can be collected when a child is delivered and the umbilical cord is clamped and cut. Even mothers who undergo Caesarian delivery can choose to bank the cord blood of their newborn child. The stem cells are stored in liquid nitrogen tanks at negative 180 degrees Celsius. It is believed that stem cells can be stored for an indefinite period of time. The cells can then be thawed and ready for use when the need arises.

It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that can be taken advantage of only at birth. "Expectant parents are storing cord blood for their families, not only as a potential life-saving resource for current uses of stem cells, but also for their future potential," Dr. Teo says. "When you bank your baby’s cord blood stem cells, you are saving what may be a key component to potential future medical treatments and cures."

Dr. Teo sees stemcord’s future usefulness in regenerative medicine. "It can be used in the treatment of organs. In the future, there may no longer be a need for organ transplants," he notes. "The availability of stem cells can potentially save a life or prolonged survival."

In a word, it is all about hope. It offers hope for those who might be left with no other treatment option," Dr. Teo says.

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