It was a no-brainer decision for Buena Park resident Stephanie Vinson that come delivery time, she would donate her baby's valuable umbilical cord blood. The hospital where she worked and delivered, Long Beach Memorial Center, offered a public collection program, meaning a mother can donate her cord blood for free.
Her colleague, Jenny Grgas, a labor and delivery nurse at the same hospital, signed up to donate her first child's cord blood after learning that it can treat over 80 diseases, including leukemia, lymphoma and sickle cell anemia. She tried to encourage expectant mothers at her hospital to donate their babies' cord blood, but she discovered that most of them were unaware of such a process. In the days leading up to delivery, mothers are generally in an uncomfortable state, adding to their inhibition to donate, she said.
“A lot of people haven't heard of it,” she said. “I think a lot of people just don't really know what it is.”
Cord blood, which comes from a baby's umbilical cord and the mother's placenta, is considerably more treasured than bone marrow because it contains stem cells that are younger and thus more prolific; it's also void of latent viruses regularly found in adult stem cells. Cord blood is also much easier to match up than bone marrow. Nurse Grgas, however, finds that some parents are hesitant to donate.
“It really isn't a major decision,” she said. “They don't realize that the blood that's left over just gets thrown in the trash, and the only extra thing it requires of them is five minutes of paperwork and a blood draw,” she said.
Dr. Karen Taylor, an obstetrician and gynecologist, works as the medical director of education and collections for West Covina-based StemCyte, Inc., a stem cell and cord blood banking company. Since the company's inception in 2000, it has facilitated 1,700 cord blood transplants, averaging between 15 and 20 per month. It does this via establishing public and private storage banks across the country; so far, it has set up public banks at six California hospitals including Long Beach Memorial Center and Sharp Mary Birch in San Diego. But the company's marketing director Brian McEnroe said that California's financially strapped status sets a challenge to propping up more public banks. The process is costly, let alone funding staff who can conduct screenings, transfers and blood storage.
“The state of California has three million dollars in its budget to collect cord blood,” he said. “We're trying to allocate those funds to help pay for phlebotomists and collectors.”
California has one federally supported public cord blood bank, and there are approximately a dozen others across the country. Parents can opt for private banking, which usually charges $2,000 for collection, processing and preservation, and more than $100 per month in storage fees. Unlike public banking, private banking allows families to reserve the blood for their own personal use. Some medical groups say that the likelihood of a family member using his or her own cord blood is very low. Nevertheless, some doctors encourage private banking for those who can afford it, saying that the value of cord blood can potentially surge as stem cell studies lead to new breakthroughs for diseases like alzheimer's and diabetes.
Regardless, the lack of public banking and the cost of private banking probably explains why nearly all cord blood units are discarded post-delivery—about 97 percent.
Dr. Taylor says that the number of cord blood donations is slightly increasing as public collection programs slowly expand, but there is an ever present demand for more donations.
“There's a need to educate the public so they know that this is a possibility, and to get them to go through the process and give consent to donate,” she said.