Feature Archive

Can the Umbilical Cord Save Lives?

Perhaps. Once tossed in the trash, they are now thought to help kids with a host of ailments. So why aren't more of them being saved?

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Cynthia Haines

When Lisa Taner, 34, learned that she was pregnant, she wanted to donate her umbilical cord blood, a once discarded birth byproduct that she knew could save lives. Not only would she give birth to one child, but by banking her cord blood she might have the opportunity to help another child survive. Or so she thought.

Despite the tremendous promise of cord blood cells in treating disease, it turns out that few public blood banks collect this resource, and private banks charge high fees for the service. In fact, Taner found it impossible to donate her baby's cells -- and is now among the growing chorus of parents who say it's time for that to change.

The Belmont, Calif., woman had read a magazine story reporting that public cord blood banks were accepting donations of this rich source of stem cells (immature blood cells), to treat children ill with leukemia and other cancers. This account, like many others over the last few years, reported on medical studies that had shown that umbilical cord blood transplants were a less-invasive alternative to bone marrow transplants in treating certain diseases in infants and young children.

But upon calling the Cord Blood Foundation -- a local public cord blood bank in the San Francisco area -- Taner received some bad news: The foundation had suspended its public donation program indefinitely. With no federal money and few alternative resources, it could no longer afford to process and store any more cord blood than it had already stockpiled.