Stem cells are like the wild cards of our body's cells, able to replicate and develop into a variety of specialized cells, thereby replacing diseased or dying cells to treat a number of conditions and disorders. Doctors have been using these stem cells in many lifesaving treatments since 1988 and new research holds the hope that many more can be saved.
When people hear the term stem cells, they often think exclusively of embryonic stem cells, or those taken from a blastocyst (a 4-5 day old embryo). The controversy over embryonic stem cells has unfortunately deflected attention from cord blood and adult stem cells, which can be collected without destroying an embryo yet still hold great potential for medical therapy. Cord blood and adult stem cells are most often used to treat leukemia by facilitating bone marrow transplants, but they can also help grow muscle, blood cells, and brain cells.
Cord blood stem cells are found in the umbilical cord after birth, while adult stem cells are present in many organs and tissues throughout the body including the brain, heart, bone marrow, peripheral blood, blood vessels, skeletal muscle, skin and liver. Scientists have discovered that these stem cells offer many of the same opportunities for research and treatment as embryonic stem cells but without destroying an embryo and/or performing therapeutic cloning.
After the baby is born, cord blood stem cells are extracted from the umbilical cord and cryogenically frozen and stored in a special facility where they can be kept indefinitely. The stem cells are a perfect match to the donor child and mother, but they may also be used to treat siblings and other relatives if they prove to be an exact match.
Stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood can be used to treat nearly 70 diseases and may be able to treat many more in the future. Diseases that are currently treatable include leukemias and lymphomas, Tay Sachs, sickle cell anemia, aplastic anemia, brain tumors, certain cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. Emerging research indicates that more disorders and diseases could soon be added to this list, including Alzheimer's, diabetes, Parkinson's, and spinal cord injuries.
There are two options for banking umbilical cord blood: private and public. Private banking can be expensive, but the stem cells will always be available exclusively to you and your family in the event of a life-threatening disease. In addition, the survival rates using a relative's cord blood are twice as high as using an unrelated sample from a public bank. Public banking is free; however, there is no guarantee that the stem cells will be saved or available to you in the future and only a limited number of hospitals offer public donation.
You can save a life and contribute to vital medical research right now by banking your umbilical cord blood.