Frances Verter’s first child, Shai, died before reaching her fifth birthday after a lifelong fight with cancer. When her second and third children were born, Verter decided to collect and store the blood from their umbilical cords, an option increasingly being presented to expecting parents around the nation.
Cord blood is a rich source of stem cells, the building blocks that produce blood and can be transformed into other cell types. The growing number of parents who bank their children’s cord blood believe it is a form of biological insurance.
Cord blood banks, particularly private ones that allow parents to store it for family members, are a growing industry, hoping to take advantage of legislation to promote cord blood donations. Ten states now have passed laws either encouraging or mandating that physicians inform parents of the option. Twelve more are expected to consider legislation this year.
But public health officials argue the chances that a child or family member will need the blood is minuscule. Instead, they encourage parents to donate cord blood to public banks to make it available to all patients who need it.
So far, more parents have chosen the private banks, which have gathered cord blood from about 500,000 children, according to a spokeswoman for an industry trade group, the Association of Family Cord Blood Banks.
The percentage of parents who now opt to store cord blood is estimated to be between 3 and 5 percent, leaving a vast untapped population. Given the 4 million births a year in the United States, industry leaders estimate about half those parents have the money and knowledge to understand the benefits of storing cord blood.
Companies charge a fee ranging from $1,000 to $2,000 to collect the blood, but their revenue comes largely from storage fees of $100 to $150 a year.
One of the first known cases of a parent storing cord blood was in 1992, when David Harris, now the director of the Stem Cell Bank at the University of Arizona, froze the blood from the umbilical cord of his son Alexandre. Harris is also the scientific director for Cord Blood Registry.
Parents who face the choice between private and public banking are basically weighing their desire to help others with what some might call an instinctual need to help themselves.
Public health officials, though, have emphasized the low probability of most families ever needing the cord blood. The American Academy of Pediatrics statement estimated the chances of a child needing cord blood at between one in 1,000 and one in 200,000 and noted the risk that the blood could carry the disease already being treated.
However it’s clear that the medical community believes that more research is needed.