Your pregnant body is amazing, but then if you’ve ever been pregnant, you know that. When the fetus is 12 weeks old in the womb, they have all the structures they need in place, they just need to grow. How amazing is that? What we’re talking about today is stem cells. You may have heard them being mentioned, either related to research for currently incurable conditions, or directly related to babies and cord blood. In this article, we are going to answer some of your questions around stem cells and stem cell collection at birth. If your question is not answered here, feel free to contact us. In my early days as a Midwife, we used to collect the cord blood for those wanting stem cell collection, but then the NHS trust I worked for said we didn’t have the insurance cover to provide the service.
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are present in all of us, and are not unique to babies. They are the building block cells, serving as a repair and maintenance system for other body cells and the blood and immune systems by multiplying and transforming in to blood, bone, tissue and organ cells, when they are required to. They are produced by our bone marrow, and are present in concentrated quantities in the umbilical cord and cord tissue.
Why collect stem cells at birth?
There are 3 main reasons to collect and store stem cells at birth.
In cases of blood diseases like leukaemia, a cord blood stem cell transplant can be used to replace diseased cells with healthy new cells, and rebuild an individual’s blood and immune system. More recently, cord blood stem cells have been shown to be able to form other tissues in the body such as nerve and bone cells. There is tremendous potential for the use of stem cells in all areas, particularly growing new tissues and possibly organs from your original stem cells. In laboratory work, cord blood cells have been shown to be capable of developing into a range of cell types such as nerve, bone, skin, heart and liver cells to name a few. There is also some evidence that if your baby suffers a birth injury or pregnancy related lack of oxygen resulting in brain damage, that stem cells could help their recovery and repair. For the future, cord blood is likely to play a major part in our ability to treat human disease.
What about delayed cord clamping and stem cell collection, is it still possible?
This was one of my main questions. It’s pretty much standard practice now to follow the WHO (world health organisation) guidelines of 1-3 minutes of delay between delivery of the baby and clamping the cord, there is no difference in the quality and volume of blood collected. If you choose a physiological third stage, where you wait until the placenta is delivered before separating the baby there may be less blood to collect. The stem cell storage companies will need a minimum of 15ml of blood from the cord.
How is the blood collected?
Once you have decided to have your baby’s stem cells collected, you will have a number to call when you are going into labour or in the hospital. The phlebotomist on call in your area will then attend and await the birth. I have seen a few waiting a long while, they are used to it! It doesn’t matter how the baby is born, vaginally, with instrumental help or c-section, or if the baby is premature you can still have stem cells collected. If the baby is very premature it may not be possible. You should inform your Midwife and hospital team that they will be present to collect cord blood for stem cell collection. Your NHS trust or Private hospital may have their own rules regarding stem cell collection, so check with them first, although in 99% of cases it’s not a problem. It’s your baby! Then at the birth, providing all is well they will wait until the cord has been clamped, then collect the blood sample from the cord and placenta if necessary. They may also take a sample of cord tissue if arranged, as the cord contains a different type of stem cells. The blood is sealed in labelled, special bags ready to be frozen and stored.
See the video below for a visual representation of what you need to know about stem cell collection:
Video courtesy of Smart Cells
Are there any drawbacks to stem cell collection?
There is a fee involved, of course and not just for the collection, you will need to pay a storage fee for however long you want it stored for, which is likely to be the whole of your child’s life, so bear that in mind. There are no guarantees you will ever make use of it, or that if you did it would definitely help, but the evidence is there that it has so many benefits and potential benefits.
Have any stem cells been used with success?
In a short answer, yes. They have been used in clinical trials for cerebral palsy, and with success in cases of Thalassaemia and Leukaemia, however it’s not a guaranteed success.
How can I arrange for stem cell collection?
Stem cell collection is not available on the NHS, so you will need to find a private company you are comfortable with. Go with a company that is well established, has a proven track record, and is well covered with agents who can attend your birth.
Disclosure: collaborative post. All information correct at time of press.
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