Almost immediately after my grandson was born earlier this month, my daughter’s ob-gyn went to work preparing the umbilical cord so that its blood stem cells could be donated for either life-saving medical treatments or research.
The ob-gyn struggled a bit with the paperwork that accompanied the donation. “Each group that does this has a different procedure,” he told me. “If you don’t do it right, they don’t accept the blood. So each time I have to read through all the directions.”
I glanced at the instruction sheet. There seemed to be at least 15 steps, all in small-font print.
“But I don’t care,” the ob-gyn quickly said. “I think it’s great that your daughter is doing this.”
Later, my daughter told me one reason her doctor was so willing to spend all that extra time in the delivery room, making sure he got each step in the umbilical cord blood-donation process right: He has a child with a history of leukemia — one of the more than 70 medical conditions that can sometimes be successfully treated with transplanted umbilical cord blood cells.
What a great thing for parents of newborns to do, I thought. Despite the paperwork and other process-related hassles (and there were some for my daughter and son-in-law as well), donating umbilical cord blood (the blood left over in the umbilical cord and placenta after the baby is born — blood that is otherwise thrown away) seemed a relatively easy thing to do. A win-win, as they say.
But, of course, few actions are ever as easy as they seem. Even one that can save lives.
Crossed off the list
Minnesota is home to the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP), the nonprofit organization Congress designated in 2006 as the country’s Cord Blood Coordinating Center. It manages the collection of cord blood units across the country and then, through its Be The Match Registry, helps match those units with the individual transplant patients who need them.
Ironically, however, Minnesota is not one of the 22 states with hospitals that collect cord blood for public donation.We can receive cord blood from the registry; but we can’t give to it — at least, not through our hospitals.
It wasn’t always that way.
“The American Red Cross used to collect at a couple of hospitals in the Twin Cities,” says Michael Boo, chief strategy officer at NMDP. “But when they went through a reorientation of their mission four or five years ago, they decided to get out of the cord blood banking mission.”
Boo says he doesn’t know of any organization that is actively pursuing public cord blood collection in Minnesota. Nor does the state’s Legislature seem interested. “Economics is the bottom line,” he says. Collecting cord blood is relatively expensive — between $1,200 and $1,700 to put each unit into the bank.
Yet the demand for cord blood continues to grow. Right now, the number of cord blood units in the national inventory is well short of what is needed, says Boo. The Be The Match Registry currently has about 150,000 units – about half its target.
“We want to make sure that everybody has the best choice available to them when they search the registry,” he says.
If you’d like to donate
Minnesota parents who wish to donate their newborn’s cord blood to the registry may be able to do so indirectly through Cryobanks International. This is the organization my daughter and son-in-law used in Maryland (also not among the 22 states that collect cord blood for public donation). You must contact Cryobanks early in the pregnancy, however, to make sure your cord blood donation will be accepted. And due to funding shortages, says Boo, Cryobanks sets a limit on how many cord blood units they can accept each month.
All cord blood is welcomed, but there is a special need for cord blood from families of racial and ethnic minorities.
Also, be aware that although the medical community widely supports public cord blood banking, private cord blood banking — the storing of cord blood by a for-profit organization for the later exclusive use of the child or the child’s family — is highly controversial. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, strongly discourages private cord blood banking except in very specialized cases. (Parent.com wrote a good review of the controversy a few years back.)