Research bank makes good use of umbilical cords

04/19/04

Donations of cord blood provide hematopoietic stem cells for research purposes only

After the delivery of a newborn, snipping the umbilical cord and then discarding the cord and placenta is the typical procedure. However, some new mothers at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics are accepting the invitation to donate their baby's umbilical cord blood to a new UI research bank that aims to advance our understanding of human diseases.

The procedure in no way affects the delivery or health of the baby, and the donation provides important cells only for research studies, not for stem cell transplants into other patients or for therapeutic cloning. The new research endeavor -- the UI Hematopoietic Stem Cell Bank -- is funded by the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust and housed in the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine.

An umbilical cord contains hematopoietic (blood) stem cells -- unspecialized cells that can develop into different blood cell types and even other cells in the body, such as muscle cells or nerves. The cord blood stem cells have potential for advancing gene therapy for conditions such as Parkinson's disease and muscular dystrophy.

This versatility makes the cells very useful for research studies and can promote scientific and medical advances, said Frederick Goldman, M.D., UI associate professor of pediatrics and director of the new hematopoietic stem cell bank.

"Cord blood stem cells are more committed than embryonic stem cells, but they still have the ability to differentiate into a wide variety of tissue types," Goldman said.

Restrictions placed on embryonic stems cells by the federal government and some state governments often make it difficult to use these cells in scientific investigations. However, cord blood stem cells are not subject to these same restrictions.

The umbilical cord is rich in hematopoietic stem cells, which can produce red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Sue O'Dorisio, M.D., Ph.D., UI Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics and an investigator instrumental in creating the bank, is studying the ability of cord blood stem cells to produce megakaryocytes, the precursor cells that generate platelets. The cord blood stem cells have the potential to alleviate bleeding problems in patients with side effects from cancer treatments.

"Mothers participating in the program understand that while there is no direct benefit for them, the donation is important in promoting medical research that drives the development of future treatments," Goldman said. "We really appreciate the willingness of expectant mothers to consider making this donation."

To date, nearly 20 mothers have donated their child's umbilical cord blood. The bank coordinates with staff in the UI Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology to inform mothers of the donation option, said Dale Winnike, UI research assistant in pediatrics and coordinator of the stem cell bank.

"Expectant mothers are given a brochure at their 28-week appointment to consider the donation option. For participating moms, the obstetrics and gynecology staff use a special collection kit to preserve the cord blood after delivery," Winnike explained.

The kit includes catheters to drain blood from the three blood vessels in the cord. One umbilical cord provides 20 to 150 milliliters of blood. The blood cells are processed and then cultured as a quality assurance measure to ensure they are not contaminated with bacteria. The bank aims to have 500 units frozen to be available free of charge to local investigators, including members of the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center at the UI.

"We are currently working to provide cord blood units to all researchers that are interested in studying stem cells," Goldman said. "We also are encouraging our colleagues in the basic sciences as well as other medical fields to consider using cord blood stem cells in their investigations."

"It is exciting that we can offer this service at no cost to the investigators. We appreciate the Carver Charitable Trust for their generosity and foresight in supporting the bank," he added.

The Carver Charitable Trust is providing a Center of Excellence grant to help support the project.

Goldman does not recommend the routine saving of cord blood except when an older sibling has a cancer or a genetic disease that can be cured by a bone marrow transplant. These families are referred to Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI) in Oakland, Calif. (http://www.chori.org/siblingcordblood/home.html). CHORI currently holds about 10 cord units for qualifying families treated at the University of Iowa. For those families, there is only a 2 to 5 percent chance that the cord blood will be used in the future for treating a disease in their sibling. The costs of collection and storage are billed to the patient's insurance carrier; if an insurance company denies payment, CHORI has a grant that helps defray these costs.

Parents without an immediate medical need for cord blood may decide to use a private bank to store umbilical cord blood. However, those parents must initiate that process with the private bank they select and they must pay a yearly storage fee for as long as they wish to store the cord blood.

"Since most families do not need to store cord blood for their own use, we hope they will consider contributing their babies' cord blood to the new research bank," said O'Dorisio.

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