Umbilical Cord Blood Stem Cells: FAQs

Dr Rob Hicks


September 21, 2021

WHAT Is Cord Blood?

Umbilical cord blood remains in the placenta and umbilical cord after a baby is born. This blood is rich in stem cells, which may be able to help cure some life threatening diseases. Stem cells – also known as ‘master cells’ - are immature cells that can transform into other kinds of cells and reproduce themselves.

Both umbilical cord blood and bone marrow contain the same sort of stem cells: haematopoietic progenitor cells (HPCs).

The potential advantage of cord blood over bone marrow is that:

  • The cells in cord blood are less mature

  • The cells in cord blood are less likely to cause graft-versus-host disease

  • It's simpler and safer to donate cord blood than bone marrow, which is a much more involved process since bone marrow donors have to be anaesthetised and are at risk of infection

  • Retrieving frozen cord blood is quicker since bone marrow is taken from donors as needed meaning collecting it can take much longer

One disadvantage of cord blood is that after the transplant it takes longer to have an effect than stem cells from bone marrow.

WHY Is Cord Blood Helpful?

Inherited metabolic diseases, immune deficiencies, haemoglobinopathies (sickle cell anaemia, thalassaemia), bone marrow failure, and blood cancers (leukaemialymphoma) - are currently able to be treated with cord blood stem cell transplant. Cord blood stem cell transplant can also treat people whose bone marrow has been damaged by chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

Once injected into the person who needs them it is hoped that the stem cells will make new, healthy blood cells for the recipient.

Experts hope that very primitive embryonic stem cells will become a treatment for many diseases in the future - such as Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and other conditions - but for now these applications are only theoretical.

WHO Might Donate or Store Cord Blood? 

Cord blood may be stored privately for the mother herself, her child, or other family member to make use of if needed in the future – for example if they develop a disease that can be treated with a stem cell transplant.

Cord blood can also be donated altruistically to the NHS Cord Blood Bank where it can be used for any patient in the UK or around the world.

It is believed that cord blood can be stored for at least 25 years whilst maintaining its potential for use.

WHEN Is Cord Blood Collected?

Umbilical cord blood stem cells are collected from the umbilical cord immediately after birth.

The procedure is simple, safe, and painless for both mother and child. The whole process takes a few minutes.

Straight after birth the umbilical cord is clamped and cut, a sterile solution is used to wash a small area of the umbilical cord that is still attached to the placenta, a needle is inserted into the cord's umbilical vein, and the cord blood collected into a collection bag.

Collecting cord blood isn't routine in the UK, so it’s important to set up the procedure with the hospital or laboratory in advance. Experts recommend that a person contacts the cord blood bank before the 34th week of pregnancy.

The woman’s midwifeGP or maternity unit staff will also need to know about the decision in advance, as they have to be prepared to take the blood right after delivery.

WHERE Is Cord Blood Stored?

Cord blood may be donated to the NHS Cord Blood bank or stored with a private bank.

The NHS Cord Blood bank stores cord blood until it is needed for a patient needing a stem cell transplant. It does not charge a person for collecting, testing, or storing the cord blood donation. The donations are available for public use, and not specifically for use by the donor and their family. 

Private banks are commercial businesses that charge a fee for the storage of cord blood - prices vary but can cost around £2000 for 20 years storage. In return the cord blood is saved specifically for the person’s or their family's use. 

WORRIES for Consideration?

Collecting cord blood is not always possible. For instance if there are any problems with the delivery - either for the mother or child - the doctors will want to focus on helping them instead of taking the cord blood.

The Human Reproductive Cloning Act 2001 made the use of any scientific techniques to create a child by reproductive cloning illegal, so donations will not be used for this purpose.

Choose a company that seems financially stable. Ask the company to put in writing your rights and the process they'll follow if they ever go out of business and need to return or transfer your cord blood.


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