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Can the Umbilical Cord Save Lives?

Perhaps. Once tossed in the trash, they are now thought to help kids with a host of ailments. So why aren't more of them being saved?

To Bank or Not to Bank? continued...

The promise of saving a loved one's life is what private cord blood banks are selling to prospective customers. And on the surface, the premise seems reasonable: Parents want to do what they can to ensure the health and safety of their children. Why not save something that will otherwise be discarded?

But collection of the blood, which takes place after the baby's cord is cut, costs as much as $1,500 per sample. The blood is then shipped to the bank's laboratory for screening and freezing. Annual storage fees range from $95 to $100.

Insurance coverage varies for collection and storage fees. Big-name insurers like Aetna U.S. Healthcare and some state Medicaid providers are signing on to pay in full for private cord blood banking in instances where the blood is needed immediately to treat a cancer-stricken relative. Otherwise, parents have to dig deep into their own pockets.

Why bank privately? The majority of the roughly 20,000 clients who have banked their cord blood with the Cord Blood Registry have done so for peace of mind, says Stephen Grant, vice president of communications at the Cord Blood Registry. "We know that stem cells can be effective in treating leukemia and 75 other diseases," says Grant.

Until now, diseases successfully treated with a cord blood transplant include various leukemias and other blood cancers and genetic diseases like sickle-cell anemia and Krabbe's disease. Other illnesses doctors are hoping these stem cells will treat include breast cancer and AIDS.

Children have been the chief recipients of these transplants because the average cord blood collection yields only enough stem cells to provide for a child, says John Fraser, MD, PhD, director of the UCLA Umbilical Cord Blood Bank, one of the participating centers in a five-year, $30-million National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) study on the efficacy of cord blood transplants.

Finding the True Risk Levels

Meanwhile, the marketing tactics used by private cord blood banks have come under criticism and investigation.

A study commissioned by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has found that some private banks exaggerate most families' risks of developing a serious medical condition that will warrant a cord blood transplant.

What's the true risk? Estimates that a child might need cord blood range from one in 1,000 to one in 200,000, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The Cord Blood Registry, in five years of operation, says only 14 of its more than 20,000 samples have been used in transplants.

Based on the real risk and the fact that "empirical evidence that children will need their own cord blood for future use is lacking," the respected Academy does not recommend that parents store their child's blood for future use.

Grant at the Cord Blood Registry, however, says talk of statistics misses the point. "People talk about the odds of [privately stored cord blood] being used, that it's an investment that won't pan out. But do you have fire insurance on your home because you're hoping it will burn down? The reality is that nobody wants to use their stem cells," says Grant.

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