Storing the blood from a newborn baby's umbilical cord to
preserve the precious stem cells has recently become one of the most exciting
areas of research, holding promise for the successful treatment of many
diseases, cancers, and immune disorders. In fact, some medical researchers
now predict that within 10 to 20 years, stem cell research will enable us to
grow an unlimited supply of any type of replacement body tissue or organ.
They are called stem cells because all 210 different types of cells within our
bodies develop, or "stem" from these special cells.
When life begins,
we have a number of embryonic stem cells. These special cells have the capacity
to become any type of tissue the body needs. Depending on how they are
stimulated, they can just as easily form the lens of your eye as they can your
heart muscle. Because of this amazing versatility and its applications, being
able to isolate and grow these embryonic stem cells has always been considered
virtually the "holy grail" of science.
Scientists have now found a way to grow stem cells outside the
body in a nutrient-filled medium. By putting different nutrients in the medium,
scientists have been able to coax stem cells to develop into dozens of different
types of tissue.
In animal experiments, researchers have grown heart-muscle
tissue and injected it into damaged heart muscle. The tissue later replaced and
strengthened the existing heart muscle. In similar experiments, stem cells have
been transformed and used to grow new blood vessels, joint cartilage, and even
nerves. Scientists around the world are reporting that stem cells are also being
converted into pancreatic cells (which can make insulin), liver cells, brain
tissue, and practically every other tissue present in the human body.
The Moral Dilemma
One of the major
hurdles is not a technical problem but a moral one because there are two types
of stem cells: embryonic and adult. Embryonic stem cells exist only in the
embryonic stage of human development. To date, most of the work involving stem
cells has been possible through harvesting stem cells from aborted fetuses,
which obviously raises certain moral issues.
There has been an attempt to sidestep the moral issue by
trying to clone stem cells from adult tissue. However, adult stem cells have
been hard to isolate and are limited in the types of tissue they can form. Stem
cells from the bone marrow, for example, might be coaxed into becoming blood
vessels, bone, or nervous tissue, but not much beyond that. And, as you might
expect, it's tricky to remove brain tissue from living adults for experimental
In contrast, stem cells are more abundant in embryonic tissue
and embryonic stem cells possess two distinguishing characteristics. First, they
are not limited in the type of tissue they can form. Second, they may be
immortal. If they are kept in an immature state, they will continue to divide
The Gift of Life
acceptable way to sidestep this issue is to bank the umbilical cord blood of
your newborn baby which is rich in stem cells. This is becoming very popular but
there is only one opportunity to collect and store this blood, and that's at the
time of delivery. You might call it a form of biological insurance.
Stem cells from cord blood are totally compatible not only
with the child, but often with siblings and family members as well. In just the
last few years, these stem cell transplants have been used successfully to save
the lives of hundreds of children who have later developed genetic or immune
disorders and certain cancers, such as leukemia. Over 30 diseases are currently
being treated with cord blood transplants. If current research is any
indication, having a supply of one's own stem cells could turn out to be the
future cure for dozens of health problems, including cancer, heart disease,
diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and others. It could also form the basis for
regenerating aged organs and tissue.
One company that offers a complete program that makes the
whole procedure very simple is Viacord. They provide all the collection
material, educate the hospital staff and doctors, and arrange for pickup and
storage of the cord blood in a way that doesn't interfere with the birthing