Cord blood is the blood found inside the umbilical cord, the nutritional “pipeline” between the mother and the baby in utero. Following the birth of a baby, the umbilical cord usually is discarded along with the placenta. However, it is now known that blood retrieved from the umbilical cord is a rich source of stem cells.
Stem cells are unspecialized cells that can develop into specialized cells such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell, or a brain cell. They continually make new copies of themselves and produce cells that make every other type of cell. Stem cells are usually further defined according to how many different types of cells they have the potential to produce. For instance, a fertilized egg is considered totipotent, meaning it can give rise to all the different types of cells in the body. Pluripotent stem cells can give rise to any type of cell in the body except those needed to develop a fetus, and multipotent stem cells can develop into multiple different cell types. The stem cells in umbilical cord blood are considered multipotent, though recent research is discovering ways to regress these and adult stem cells into pluripotent stem cells.
Like donated bone marrow, stem cells from umbilical cord blood can be used to treat various genetic disorders that affect the blood and immune system, leukemia and certain cancers, and some inherited disorders of body chemistry. To date, more than 45 disorders have been treated with stem cells. Cord blood has therapeutic advantages over adult stem cells. Cord blood stem cells, unlike adult stem cells, are less likely to contain DNA abnormalities caused by sunlight, toxins and errors in DNA replication during the course of a lifetime and, in transplantations, are rejected much less often even though exact matches are not required. Cord blood is a richer source of stem cells than bone marrow, with nearly 10 times as many blood-producing cells, so fewer cord blood cells are needed for a successful transplantation.