Umbilical cord blood benefits University

University researchers discussed a cost-cutting stem cell plan Wednesday.

Nathaniel Rabuzzi

University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview researchers will likely get a significant new source of stem cells soon — a proposal that has been discussed for years.

On Wednesday, the medical center ironed out plans for an umbilical cord blood donation program to save stem cell researchers money and make the donation process easier.

Laboratory medicine and pathology professor Jeffrey McCullough said the proposed deal, which would link the University with Fairview Health Services’ Riverside clinic and the St. Louis Cord Blood Bank, would give the University more access to stem cells at no cost.

He said the plans are exciting because the University currently has to buy these stem cells from a cord blood bank at a great expense.

Umbilical cord blood is in demand because it contains stem cells used in a variety of medical procedures, including the treatment of cancer, McCullough said.

In 2008, University researchers discovered transplants using umbilical cord blood were just as effective in treating leukemia patients as bone marrow transplants.

 Cord blood transplant requires less-exact matching between donor and recipient, McCullough said, and there are more donors.

“Everybody who is involved in this thinks this is a no-brainer,” McCullough said. “This is material that currently is not used and is currently discarded, and it has extreme values for transplant patients [and] research.”

He said researchers could look into making the cord blood stem cells into tissues that adult marrow stem cells cannot produce, like cartilage and heart muscles.

Harvesting the cord blood isn’t dangerous for the mother or the child, McCullough said.

“Nobody’s being put at any risk, and yet you get valuable material that can be used to help patients, either by direct transplant or by research,” he said.

The St. Louis Cord Blood Bank has taken more than 130,000 donations since it opened in 1996, but the number would increase with the proposed deal, nurse coordinator Kathy Mueckl said.

“I know we’re going to start slow … and then potentially expand,” Mueckl said.

The Riverside clinic performs about 2,500 births every year, said Alex Babic, medical director of the blood bank.

“We’re hoping that about 60 percent of these deliveries would result in a cord blood unit,” he said.

Donations will be sorted and sent to the blood bank to check if they could be used for stem cell transplants or to the University Medical Center for research, Babic said.

“Somebody will weigh them on the spot at the hospital when they’re collected, and if they meet the weight requirement … they will be shipped to St. Louis,” he said.

The remaining units of blood that don’t go to the blood bank will likely make up about 85 percent of the total donations from the Riverside clinic, Babic said. Those units will go to the University for research.

The proposal discussed Wednesday is a “winner” because every unit collected has value, McCullough said.

“Either it’s got enough stem cells to be banked for future transplant, or it can be used for laboratory research here at the U,” he said.

The deal is expected to be finalized once official contracts are written by the blood bank and signed by Fairview’s attorneys.