Science, Art, Litt, Science based Art & Science Communication
Every day we see ads in the media here saying that some x blood bank can store your baby's umbilical cord (UC) for its 'future use'. And people keep asking me about the truth.
Okay, I will give this information from a scientific point of view.
The umbilical cord is the lifeline of a fetus in the womb. Running through the nearly 2-feet-long cord, there’s a vein ferrying nutrients and oxygen from mom’s blood (via the placenta), plus two arteries carrying oxygen- and nutrient-depleted blood from the fetus back to mom. Because mother’s blood and fetal blood don’t actually mix much, the blood in the placenta and umbilical cord at birth belongs mainly to the fetus.
Fetal blood holds all sorts of interesting — and allegedly potentially therapeutic — cells and molecules. This thought has, in some cases, changed the way the umbilical cord and placenta are handled during birth. Instead of throwing it away as a waste product, some doctors, scientists and parents are choosing to bank this fetal blood — harvesting it from the baby’s umbilical cord and placenta, freezing it and storing it away for later. Proponents of cord blood banking are convinced that instead of being medical waste, the fetal cells within are biological boon. Is it, really?
This thought actually belongs to the 1980s, umbilical cord blood caught the attention of researchers who suspected that the often-discarded tissue could be a valuable source of shape-shifting stem cells. These cells, which can become several different types of blood cells, are similar to the specialized stem cells found in bone marrow that can churn out new blood cells. Such stem cells are found in adult blood, too, but not as abundantly. At the time, researchers didn’t know much about the properties of the cells found in umbilical cord blood. But research has zoomed forward, illuminating more about the contents of this young blood. Of particular interest are the flexible hematopoietic stem cells important in that initial transplant. In certain cases, transplanting these cells might be able to reboot a person’s body and get rid of a disease-related defect. Cord blood transplants are similar to bone marrow transplants. A person with leukemia, for instance, might have his own cancerous blood cells wiped out with chemotherapy and radiation. Healthy, non-cancerous stem cells from a donor can then repopulate the blood. Extracting stem cells from bone marrow requires surgery under anesthesia; extracting them from the blood requires taking a drug to stimulate their production. And in order to work, these stem cell donations need to come from a person who carries a similar pattern of proteins on the outsides of his or her cells, a molecular calling card known as HLA type. Stem cells found in cord blood don’t need to be as closely matched to work. Because these cells are so flexible, there’s more wiggle room between donor and recipient. That’s particularly good news for people of certain ethnic minorities who often have trouble finding matched stem cell transplant donors.
Trials around the world are studying umbilical cord blood’s capabilities in a wide range of diseases like Cerebral palsy, autism, diabetes and lupus are currently under investigation. The cells are even being tested for an ameliorating role in Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions. Storing cord blood, people thought, can serve as a type of "insurance" in case babies suffer from any of the several illnesses later in life.
But, like they say, reality is less promising. For all of the promise, there are lots of reasons why umbilical cord cells may turn out to be less useful than thought. Why?
First the cost of storing UC cells is very high. The rates range from Rs.50000 to Rs.100000. Sometimes yearly maintenance fees of Rs.10000 is also charged. Several doctors and scientists also gave these negative reasons to say why this might not work in reality...