Cord Blood Decision Difficult for Parents-to-be

Having a baby is complicated enough. But these days a pregnant mom must also decide whether to save the blood from her baby's umbilical cord. The blood contains medically useful stem cells that would otherwise be thrown away. Parents must make a biological gamble whether to keep the blood for their family, or try to donate it. KUHF Health, Science and Technology reporter Carrie Feibel reports.
The cord-blood decision starts looming early in pregnancy. Valerie Lawhorn is expecting her first child in June.

"And I started getting pamphlets with my vitamin samples at the doctor's office. So it's, it's basically advertising, that's how I heard about it."

The ads urge parents to deep freeze cord blood. That can cost up to two thousand dollars, plus about $125 every year for storage. It's not cheap, but private banks say they provide peace of mind. Morey Kraus is the chief scientific officer of ViaCord, a private bank that advertises here in Houston.

"What they're doing is putting a safety buffer in case they need a unit for a child where they may not know that there's a disease. Or maybe for a yet unborn child who may have a disease later."

Doctors use the stem cells to treat leukemias, lymphomas and other disorders. They can also get stem cells from bone marrow, but it can be harder to find a genetic match. Private banking of cord blood increases the odds of certain treatments working, but only for that particular family.

There's another option. Parents can donate the cord blood to a public bank, so the cells can be used to treat other patients. Crystal Hansen explored donation when she gave birth last summer.

"Because I felt like if someone was able to use it now, I'd rather them have that option, you know I don't want to squirrel something away on a ‘what if.'"

That "what if" question is the big question for parents. Again, Lawhorn:

"Oh, the choice. It's — especially when they tell you, some of the brochures tell you like it can help treat 80 different diseases and you think "oh my gosh, my child could GET 80 different diseases and I could potentially save my child if I were to do this. You almost feel like a bad parent not doing it."

So what are the odds that a baby would actually need the saved cord blood? Estimates range from 1 in 400 to 1 in 200,000. Given the uncertainty – and the price tag – the national associations for obstetricians and pediatricians recommend against private banking. Unless your family has a specific medical need, they suggest public donation where it's available.

Cord blood banking advertisementsCritics of private banks say they prey on parents' emotional fears, and blur the science. Again, Crystal Hansen:

"And they listed all the things that cord blood could be used for, and most of them? I mean, it's still in an experimental phase. And so — it's such a racket."

Morey Kraus of ViaCord acknowledged that the marketing has to be clear and accurate.

"We're very much in the camp of, you know, emerging therapies are in an experimental stage and that alone should not be a reason to bank."

Nevertheless, many parents do choose private banking. They are betting on a future in which cord blood could be used to treat more diseases than today, diseases like cerebral palsy and diabetes.

"The field is growing. It's viewed as a promising potential biological resource."

Dr. Charles Cox is a pediatric surgeon at the University of Texas in Houston. Cox is planning a clinical trial to infuse cord blood into children who suffer brain injuries. The theory is that the stem cells could decrease permanent brain damage. But there's a catch — it has to be the child's own cord blood, banked privately at birth.

"It's not science fiction, but it's not ready for prime time either. And so, it's somewhere in that gap between those two. And then you have to make the decision based on those pieces of information."

Valerie Lawhorn is still trying to decide.

"Do I keep this when I could be saving another life? I don't know. Those are questions that I don't have the answer to."


From the KUHF Health, Science and Technology desk, I'm Carrie Feibel.

Texas Cord Blood Bank: www.southtexasblood.org
M.D. Anderson Cord Blood Bank: www.mdanderson.org
ViaCord: www.viacord.com
Parent's Guide to Cord Blood Foundation: www.parentsguidecordblood.org
Cord Blood FAQs from the American Association of Blood Banks: http://www.aabb.org/Content/Accreditation/Cord_Blood/cord.htm
Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...