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Life Insight - Impressive advances made in adult stem cell research

Impressive advances made in adult stem cell research

By Greg Schleppenbach
Life Insight

Until recently, after a baby was born, the umbilical cord was cut and disposed of with the rest of the "after birth." Advances in adult stem cell research reveal that umbilical cord blood is rich with stem cells that can save lives. And, more important, these stem cells are morally acceptable because obtaining them causes no harm to another human being. As a result, an increasing number of parents are showing interest in saving or donating their children's cord blood.

According to the Umbilical Cord Blood Education Alliance, following delivery, there is approximately 3-5 ounces of blood remaining in the umbilical cord and placenta. This blood contains certain blood stem cells which are the "building blocks" of the immune system and are able to transform into any type of blood cell: red cell, white cell or platelets.

In a transplant, cord blood stem cells replenish the immune system and repopulate the supply of bone marrow. Traditionally, such stem cells were harvested from bone marrow which is a painful process. Cord blood is obtained after the baby is born and the umbilical cord is clamped and cut. This process is painless and safe. Moreover, cord blood stem cells are much easier to match to a recipient than is bone marrow.

At the present time, the primary use of cord blood stem cell transplantation is to treat blood diseases and cancer, such as leukemia and lymphoma, or hereditary disorders, such as sickle cell anemia and immune deficiencies. Some of these diseases are best treated with the child's own cord blood stem cells. But for diseases that have a genetic basis, physicians prefer to use stem cells from a matched donor such as a sibling or an unrelated donor from a public cord blood bank.

Cord blood stem cells are also being used to conduct ethical stem cell research. Some of this research has shown that cord blood also contains more fundamental stem cells that can transform into other cell types such as nerves or muscles. Although such research is in the early stages, it suggests that adult stem cells could be as flexible as embryonic stem cells in their ability to form any of the body's tissues and cells.

Parents can either donate their child's cord blood to a blood bank for public use or they can privately bank it for use only by their child or family. There is no charge to the parents if they donate their cord blood for public use. There is a retrieval charge (roughly $1,000) and a storage charge (roughly $100 per year) if parents want to store their cord blood for their own use.

A Catholic physician in Atlanta has formed a Catholic non-profit foundation called Babies for Life with the idea of helping to facilitate the process for couples who wish to privately bank their baby's umbilical cord blood or donate it for people in need of a stem cell transplant. In addition to helping to facilitate the donation process, the foundation works to increase public awareness about the moral and medical good that comes from donating cord blood to the public registries.

More information about Babies for Life is available on its web site at www.babiesforlife.org or by calling them at 404-303-9187. Additional information about the process of cord blood donation or private banking is available online at www.marrow.org or www.parentsguidecordblood.com or by contacting me at 402-477-7517.

Greg Schleppenbach is executive director of the state's Bishops' Pro-Life Activities Office in Lincoln.

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