There are many “what if” situations that we all consider in our life. One of the most serious is “What if a child or other family member was to become seriously ill?” Cord Blood Banking clinics have been growing exponentially in response to this common fear. But should you ever find yourself in this dilemma, what are the pros and cons of using cord blood cells versus other stem cell-related treatments? This article will take a comparative look at some of the key benefits and difficulties as well as the financial costs of cord blood banking.
Cord Blood Treatment Defined
Cord blood contains stem cells that can save lives. Patients requiring a stem cell transplant will receive cells from one of three sources: bone marrow, circulating blood, or umbilical cord blood. The first two exist in all healthy adults, but cord blood can only be harvested and stored at birth
A cord blood bank is based upon a laboratory where staff process the cord blood, freeze it in liquid nitrogen, and monitor the freezers.
Only a limited number of institutions in the United States have the funding to maintain public banks which take donations for free.
Advantages of Cord Blood Transplants versus Bone Marrow Transplants (BMT) or Peripheral Blood Stem Cells (PBSC)
Harvesting umbilical cord blood poses no risk to mother or child, whereas a bone marrow donor must undergo a surgical procedure.
Stored cord blood is ready for use as soon as it is needed, whereas the process of contacting and testing donors listed in a registry takes weeks to months.
For transplants, the primary advantage of cord blood stem cells over stem cells from adults is that they cause much less graft versus host disease (GvHD). In order to safely transplant adult stem cells, the patient and donor must match over at least 10 of 12 tissue types called Human Leukocyte Antigens (HLA), or 83% HLA match. By comparison, medical outcomes are just as good with cord blood that has a 4 out of 6 or 67% HLA match.
(Reference: V Rocha, et al, 2000; NEJM 342:1846)
Disadvantages of CBT versus BMT or PBSCT
The main disadvantage of cord blood transplants is that they take at least a week longer to “engraft”, which means repopulate the patient’s blood supply so that cell counts reach minimum acceptable levels. The longer engraftment time is a risk because it leaves the patient vulnerable to a fatal infection for a longer time.
A typical cord blood collection only contains enough stem cells to transplant a large child or small adult. This website has a page explaining the optimum transplant dose. At one time it was believed that cell dose limitations restricted the use of cord blood transplants to children. In recent years growing numbers of adults are also receiving cord blood transplants, either by growing the cells in a lab prior to transplant or by transplanting more than one cord blood unit at a time. More information about these trials is available on the web page about Research on Cord Blood Transplants.
Private cord blood banks usually charge an enrolment and collection fee ranging from about $775 to $2,150, plus annual storage fees ranging from about $85 to $150. Some banks include the first year’s storage as part of your initial payment and lower your annual payment if you put down more money initially.
That may sound expensive, but the cost of processing cord blood and storing it in medical freezers for years on end is considerable. Even public cord blood banks say the initial collection, processing, and storage cost them about $1,500 per unit of cord blood.
And cord blood from a public bank isn’t free, either. Costs run about $28,000 per unit and are charged to the patient’s insurance company when a cord blood unit is selected for transplant.