Cord blood research offers hope

Umbilical cord blood could play larger role in fight against leukemia.

Jerimiah Oetting

Recent findings at the University of Minnesota may give new hope to patients battling leukemia, but donating to the cause is easier said than done. In the November issue of Blood, Dr. John Wagner and Dr. Michael Verneris from the UniversityâÄôs Masonic Cancer Center presented findings indicating that patients treated with two units of umbilical cord blood were less likely to relapse than those treated with only one. Cord blood, a source of stem cells, can be donated after birth and has no harmful effects on the child or mother, according to the National Marrow Donor Program. Each donation provides one unit of cord blood. Stem cell transplants are performed using either bone marrow or cord blood. Combined with chemotherapy and radiation therapy, the transplants help replace cancerous cells with new, healthy cells. âÄúThe small amount of blood in the umbilical cord is good for little kids, but itâÄôs not so good for adolescents, or college-aged or older adults,âÄù Verneris said. He said that by doubling the amount of cord blood, the cell counts are high enough for use with adults. âÄúWeâÄôve done this now on probably about 400 people, and itâÄôs taken off,âÄù Verneris said. âÄúPeople are now using double umbilical cord blood transplant all over the world.âÄù The reduction in relapse was almost twofold, Verneris said. According to Verneris, cord blood offers many advantages over bone marrow transplants. Most marrow donors in the United States registry are Caucasian. Finding a match for a marrow transplant requires people with extremely close genetics, which is not the case with cord blood, Verneris said. Cord blood allows minorities and genetically diverse people to have more options. He also said the process of bone marrow transplantation can take up to four months, while a cord blood transplant can take as little as a week. âÄúThe use of cord blood has increased dramatically in the last five to 10 years, in large part because of the double cord [treatment] that we created here,âÄù Verneris said. While use of the treatment has increased, the difficulty in acquiring donations may cause problems in the future. âÄúAll my kidsâÄô cord bloods went into the garbage,âÄù Verneris said. âÄúI didnâÄôt save any of them, only because public donation wasnâÄôt available.âÄù According to the NMDP, there are only 22 states in the country that have the capabilities to support donation. Minnesota is not one of them. âÄúIt wasnâÄôt always the case where people in Minnesota could not donate directly to a Minnesota bank,âÄù said Kathy Welte, director of the NMDPâÄôs Center for Cord Blood. âÄúThe American Red Cross offered collections at several hospitals.âÄù Welte said people from Minnesota who want to donate are now referred to Cyrobanks International, a cord blood storage facility located in Florida. âÄúItâÄôs almost totally about money,âÄù said Mike Boo, chief strategy officer at the NMDP. âÄúIt costs about $1,500 to collect, process and store a cord blood unit for public use.âÄù Boo said the current demand for cord blood is too low to support a functional business model for collection facilities in every state. âÄúIf we can solve for the money side of things, then I think itâÄôs important to increase the opportunity to collect,âÄù he said. Boo said the NMDP is actively lobbying Congress to increase financial support and create a âÄústeady state inventory.âÄù âÄúThere are over 4 million births in the United States every year,âÄù he said. âÄúWe could rapidly get to an ideal cord blood bank.âÄù While national support may not be fully developed, the Center for Cord Blood is partnered with international banks as well as local, Welte said. Verneris maintains that the research being done at the University on cord blood is an important step in the fight against cancer. âÄúBefore cord blood was available for everybody, which it is now, I had many patients who I had to say âÄòIâÄôm sorry, thereâÄôs no bone marrow donor,âÄô âÄù he said. âÄúItâÄôs pretty tough to say that to a 12-year-old.âÄù