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Cutting the Cord

The recent decision to locate a public umbilical cord blood bank in Syracuse will give area parents a chance to donate a valuable product of birth that might otherwise become medical waste.

The state Department of Health and its Wadsworth Center laboratories, SUNY Upstate Medical University and the New York State Blood and Tissue Council will collaborate on the facility, to be called the New York State Cord Blood Science Institute. Late last year Gov. George Pataki announced that $10 million in state funding will establish the institute.

The blood in the umbilical cord of a newborn contains stem cells that can be used in medical research or to treat blood and immune-system diseases such as leukemia and sickle cell anemia. Unless parents decide in advance to give the blood to a public bank or to store it privately for possible future use by the child or a relative, the blood is discarded soon after birth. With no public bank currently in the area, mothers who give birth in Central New York cannot donate the cords.

The Syracuse cord blood bank will be among the largest in the nation and the first in New York built entirely with state funding. A site for the new cord blood institute has not yet been selected, but the state Department of Health has named the Syracuse University Research Park on Skytop Road as one possible location. The exact site of the facility will be named later this year.

“I’ve worked very hard to get the New York State Cord Blood Science Institute located here in Syracuse because I know it has the potential to save many lives,” said Sen. John A. DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse). “This is an incredible opportunity for Central New York.”

The cord blood bank will be the first of its kind in New York. Some small public umbilical cord blood banks using federal funding exist in the New York City area. Only 12 other states have public cord blood banks.

Local health care professionals hope having a public cord blood bank here will help Central New Yorkers. “The kind of cells that are going to be banked here can directly help people in the area with a number of blood cancers. The cells that are damaged in those diseases are very similar to the ones being banked,” said Jeremy Shefner, M.D., chairman of neurology at University Hospital.

Unlike embryonic stem cell research, umbilical cord blood collection and research is not controversial, said Brian A. Mason, M.D, an obstetrician and national advocate of cord blood collection. “There is no risk to the mother or baby, and the cells being donated would otherwise become medical waste,” said Mason, the director of the cord blood collection/bank program of St. John Hospital and Medical Center in Detroit.

Collection of cord blood is straightforward: When a newborn’s umbilical cord is cut, a health care professional puts the blood from the remaining umbilical cord and placenta into a syringe or blood bag. “This is a simple process that is accomplished relatively quickly and can occur whether you’ve had a vaginal birth or C-section,” Mason said.

Once the cord blood is packaged, it needs to be swiftly transported to the cord blood bank. At the cord blood bank, the stem cells are removed, repackaged and placed in liquid nitrogen for storage.

“The cells stored in public banks are then available for potential recipients whose genetic makeup closely matches that of the donor cells,” explained Mason. “Unlike in private cord blood banks where families pay a collection and yearly storage fee, these cells are not ‘reserved’ for the donor.”

Instead of donating cord blood to a public bank, which is free for donors, expectant mothers can elect to store their child’s cord blood in a private facility. The collection and storage fees associated with that vary depending on the company processing the handling and storage of the cord blood but typically cost at least $1,500 plus an annual cost of around $100.

Mason, who advocates public banking of cord blood, emphasized, “Parents need to have the correct information in order to research a variety of cord blood bank options and procedures.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics states there is no strong evidence to recommend private cord blood banking for an infant’s own future use. The estimated likelihood of a child to need his own stored cells ranges from 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 200,000. The AAP does, however, encourage philanthropic donation of cord blood.  

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York