When you hear the term “stem cells”, what comes to mind? Religious controversy? Ethical debate? embryonic stem cell research? These associations are common, and unfortunately could be limiting how often stem cells are donated for use as a life-saving transplant.
Many people equate stem cells with embryonic stem cell research but non-embryonic (or adult) stem cells are different and they’re used every day in modern medicine to save lives. Furthermore, to date, embryonic stem cells have not been used for many human therapeutic purposes.
Nearly everyone knows someone that has had or needed a bone marrow transplant, but did you know that the transplant is actually of a type of stem cell? There are several types of adult stem cells that are far removed from their controversial embryonic cellular parents. Adult stem cells can be found in the bone marrow, peripheral blood, umbilical cord blood, fat tissue, teeth and many other sources.
Over 100,000 stem cell transplants have been performed in the U.S. Bone marrow was first used in the late 1960s for transplants to combat leukemia, lymphoma and other blood diseases. In the late 1980s, the first transplant using umbilical cord blood stem cells was performed. The success of this first cord blood transplant has led to several thousand more patients being treated with stem cells. Additionally, adult stem cells are being used in the field of regenerative medicine to further develop uses for these special cells in fighting other diseases.
The beauty of umbilical cord blood stem cells is that these cells are collected from what was once considered medical waste. After the normal delivery of a baby, the umbilical cord is clamped and cut, and about 150mL of cord blood remains in the cord. This cord blood is rich in stem cells that can be used as an alternative to bone marrow stem cells for transplantation. These stem cells from the cord blood can be used for treating more than 75 diseases.
In addition to the easy and non-invasive collection process for cord blood, these cells offer a few advantages over bone marrow stem cells when used for transplantation. Stem cells from cord blood are biologically much less mature than those from bone marrow of an adult donor. If we think of the immune cells as “warriors,” the “warriors” found in the adult marrow donor sample are fully capable of fighting and therefore a common problem in a bone marrow sourced stem cell transplant is graft vs. host disease (or GVHD). GVHD occurs when the donor cells attack the recipient cells and tissue as foreign. This can cause a very severe problem for transplant recipients and is a form of reverse rejection.
With cord blood sourced stem cell transplants, GVHD is typically far less prevalent and far less severe. This is because the “warriors” are less mature. The cells are not as capable of fighting. This is the same reason that newborn babies often constantly battle sniffles and colds; their immune system cells are not yet fully functional.
In the transplant setting, having these functionally immature immune cells allows the matching between donor and recipient to be less important. In a bone marrow source transplant, the donor must perfectly match the recipient, whereas in a cord blood sourced transplant, a less-perfect match can be used with similar success. This leads to more patients being able to find a suitable stem cell source for their needed transplant. According to recent data from the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP), non-Caucasian recipients in need of transplant are more likely to find suitable matches of cord blood stem cells than from adult marrow donors.
You can donate your cord blood for free or privately store it for a fee through the Altamonte Springs-based Lifeforce Cryobanks. Because of cord blood, many more people, especially non-Caucasians, can receive the life-saving treatment they desperately need.