Umbilical cord blood used to fight disease

Craig Gustafson

The birth of a child is considered the gift of life. University doctors and researchers have found a way to make the birth a gift of two lives.
Researchers are using a new procedure to fight deadly childhood diseases by taking donations of blood from umbilical cords and placentas for later use.
University doctors first used cord blood five years ago on a 2-year-old boy suffering from Krabbe’s disease, a genetic disorder that attacks nerve cells.
The boy was waiting for a bone-marrow transplant, but doctors could not find a matching donor. So they decided to use the experimental cord-blood procedure.
Erik Haines of Maple Grove is now 8 years old and credits the cord-blood transplant with saving his life.
His success prompted the University to team up with the American Red Cross and Fairview-University Medical Center toestablish a St. Paul cord-blood bank, creating a larger supply pool for future transplants.
Several characteristics of cord blood make it more advantageous than a bone-marrow transplant said Jeff McCullough, director of University molecular and cellular therapeutics.
Cord blood is relatively immature and less susceptible to rejection. It also matches the recipient’s blood type more easily.
Transplants will also be readily available, a second advantage. Instead of waiting months, patients can find a match within days.The new cord-blood bank strengthens the University’s dominance in the field of bone-marrow transplantation. In 1968, University doctors conducted the world’s first marrow transplant. More than 3,000 transplants have followed.
David Therkelson of the Red Cross said the public response has been overwhelmingly in favor of the blood-bank program. Nearly 98 percent of birth mothers asked to contribute umbilical cords agreed.
McCullough said blood extracted from placentas and umbilical cords contain stem cells, which replicate and create different blood cells of the immune system.
Two days a week, Red Cross nurses collect the stem cell-rich blood from the West Bank’s Fairview-University Medical Center. Nurses have about five to 15 minutes to extract the blood before it begins to clot and becomes useless.
Once processed, the blood is frozen and stored at a St. Paul blood bank. The process costs between $1,000 and $1,500 each time.
“It’s an expensive proposition,” McCullough said. “But, on the other hand, the cost of a bone-marrow transplant is thousands of dollars.”
To date, 30 units of blood — three to four ounces each — have been donated. Program organizers aim to collect 1,000 units from a broad base of ethnicities in the next 11 months.
University pediatrics professor John Wagner, who performed the first cord-blood transplant for a leukemia patient, said the blood bank is one of a kind in the Midwest.
Though locally operated, the bank will benefit patients internationally.

Craig Gustafson covers the Medical School and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3233.