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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?

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.

Just Who Is a Candidate for Private Banking?

"We strongly advise families that have a child in the family who has had a transplantable disease to bank privately," says Fraser. When these high-risk families bank privately, they are doing so for use in a sibling and not in the baby whose blood is collected, says Fraser. Why can't a baby use its own cord blood? If that baby develops sickle-cell anemia or leukemia, the disease will likely be present in its cord blood as well.

Another hurdle for public cord blood banking is amassing a sufficiently diverse stockpile of donations for use by the general population. A center must bank 2,000 to 5,000 samples -- again, at a cost of $1,500 each -- before it can even begin placing them in transplant recipients, says Heidi Patterson, national director of the American Red Cross Cord Blood Banking program.

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