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Cord Blood Banking: A Wise Investment?

For most families, experts say, storing cord blood is unnecessary -- and costly.
WebMD Magazine - Feature

Peggy and Brett Willie’s son was just 7 years old when he was diagnosed with lymphoma. Chemotherapy “dissolved” the stage 3 tumor, Peggy says, “but it’s hard to say what the future will bring.” So when she became pregnant with her third child two years ago, the couple stored his umbilical cord blood with a company called NeoCells.

Fifteen years ago, few had heard of this practice. Today, many parents across the country are “banking” their newborn’s blood, in hopes it can be used to treat catastrophic diseases that might strike their child -- or a sibling -- in the future. For families like the Willies, doing so may turn out to be a wise investment, since one of their children has cancer. But for most families, health experts say, storing cord blood is unnecessary -- not to mention costly.

Currently, you can store cord blood in two places. Private banks charge parents to store their baby’s blood for the family’s own use. Nonprofit public banks take in cord blood from anyone and make it available to anyone who needs it.

Who would want it? The precious resources in umbilical cord blood are “stem” or starter cells that can mature into many different kinds of cells the body needs at any given time, such as red blood, nerve, or muscle cells. They can be transplanted to replace defective cells in patients who have one of about 75 diseases, including leukemia, lymphoma, and immune system disorders.

That sort of promise can be powerful for new parents. In fact, sales pitches by some cord blood banks are so strong that parents can feel terribly guilty about not storing their baby’s blood. But critics caution that the ads can be deceptive and note the following downsides to cord blood banking.

It’s not always the right match. Many cord blood transplants don’t use the patient’s own blood, which may have just as many defective cells as the rest of the body.
Instead the stem cells come from a sibling (whose cells were collected at birth) or a stranger (whose stem cells were stored at a public bank).

It’s not the only source. If your child does get one of the diseases that can be treated by stem cell transplants, you may be able to find a match from a public bank. More than 6,000 men, women, and children are searching the National Marrow Donor Program registry for a donor on any given day, and the median length of a search for an unrelated donor is one to two months.

It’s pricey . The cost of obtaining a cord blood unit from a public bank is usually covered by health insurance. On average it costs $1,200 for registering and $100 per year for storage. There may also be additional costs billed to health insurance when an autologous unit is released from a private bank. For the Willies and other families who already have a child who may require a stem cell transplant, storing cord blood does make sense. But other families should donate to a public bank.

"That’s the truly altruistic gesture,” says William Shearer, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics and immunology at Baylor College of Medicine. “That allows children who really need the stem cells to get them.”

Originally published in the January/February 2008 issue of WebMD the Magazine.

Reviewed on October 26, 2009

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