The Gift of a Cure
Donating your newborn's umbilical cord might someday save a life
When 6-year-old Hayden Zavareei developed an aggressive form of leukemia, the odds were stacked against her. She desperately needed a bone marrow transplant to replace her cancerous blood cells, but neither her sisters nor the worldwide registry of willing donors could provide a match. Her frantic parents searched for other answers-and found one, to their relief, in a vial at a public blood bank at Duke University Medical Center. Today, 2
Plenty of parents-to-be have heard the pitch for banking their newborn's umbilical cord, in the event that the child might someday need it. Like the stem cells in bone marrow, cord-blood stem cells can give rise to any blood or immune cell; in addition, like embryonic stem cells, they have the potential to one day repair damaged tissue in the heart, say, or the brain. But children in need of a transplant can't typically benefit from their own cord blood-which is apt to carry the same genetic mutations that have caused the disease. So the real benefit of banking turns out to be the life-giving potential for somebody else. Congress, eager to build up a source of stem cells that doesn't destroy embryos, set aside $79 million 17 months ago to expand the collection of cord blood by public blood banks and launch a national electronic network to link the banks. And about half of the states have efforts in the works to encourage women to donate umbilical cords at local hospitals when they give birth.
Cord transplants are still less common than marrow transplants, though the number worldwide has nearly doubled to about 8,000 just in the past two years. The demand has grown along with a stack of studies showing cord blood's power against some 70 diseases, including leukemia, lymphoma, and sickle cell anemia; the hope is that someday it will provide a way to treat Parkinson's, diabetes, and heart disease. One big attraction: Unlike bone marrow recipients, people getting a cord-blood transplant don't require a perfectly matched specimen-which means more patients are apt to find a donor. While bone marrow isn't a match unless at least seven out of eight cell proteins are identical to the patient's proteins, cord blood requires matching just four out of six. That's because cord blood contains fewer and weaker immune cells than marrow, so there's less likelihood of a life-threatening complication in which the transplanted cells attack the patient's healthy tissues, explains Joanne Kurtzberg, chief of the blood and marrow transplantation program at Duke.
A national supply of cord blood will come as welcome news to the more than 8,000 Americans who need bone marrow transplants each year and are unable to find suitable donors. Many die waiting. The vast majority are African-Americans, Asians, and members of other minority groups, largely because they are underrepresented in the marrow donor registries. Blacks have only a 10 percent likelihood of finding a bone marrow match; Asians, only a 20 percent likelihood. Whites, by contrast, find a match 70 percent of the time.