Umbilical cord transplants saving lives

Denise Dador Image
Thursday, June 12, 2014
Umbilical cord transplants saving lives
EMBED <>More Videos

Doctors are turning to an alternative stem cell source: the umbilical cord.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- In the 1970s, researchers discovered that a newborn's umbilical cord blood contained special stem cells that could help treat certain diseases. More than 30 years later, doctors are still experimenting with, learning more about and perfecting the use of cord blood.

Amanda Canale doesn't take time with her daughter and niece for granted. She's just happy to feel good.

"I've been in the hospital, and I've been sick my whole life," Amanda said.

Amanda was born with a rare blood disorder that required daily shots.

"Basically, I have no white blood cells," Amanda said. "I have no immune system at all."

At 23, she developed leukemia and was given two weeks to live. She desperately needed a bone marrow transplant, but family members weren't matches. Her doctor suggested an umbilical cord blood transplant.

"The cord was a perfect match and it was available, so it was the right solution for her," Edward Agura, MD, Medical Director of Bone Marrow Transplantation, Baylor University Medical Center, Dallas, said.

Cord blood contains stem cells that regenerate. Mothers of newborns can save their child's own blood or donate it. More than 30,000 transplants have been performed worldwide. However, because the blood comes from a tiny newborn, there's not much of it.

"The cord blood is rare, precious and few, and yet is more potent in its ability to grow," Dr. Agura said.

Now, doctors at Baylor are treating patients by combining cord blood from multiple donors. They've found this increases the number of stem cells and provides faster recovery. Amanda's transfusion was from a baby whose mother donated six years earlier. The procedure completely cured her cancer and blood disorder.

"Sometimes I have to sit back and think it's not real because I'm used to taking shots every day," Amanda said. "I'm used to being sick."

Now, she can enjoy time with a little girl who's glad to have a healthy mom.

"I think she's awesome and that she's really strong," Canale's daughter, Deanna said.

Experts say more patients could be helped if babies' cord blood was not thrown away, as it is in 96 percent of the nation's four-million annual births. On average, it costs about $1,200 up front and $100 per year to privately store cord blood.

However, mothers can donate to a public bank for free.