Back in April, Nick Carter let the world know that he had a private umbilical cord blood bank. Carter tagged the pic #notasponsoredpost, #stemcelltherapy, and #LOOKITUP. I did, in fact, #LOOKITUP; cord blood banking is the practice of storing your newborn's umbilical cord and placental blood in either a private or public bank for future medical use. The cord and the placenta both carry potentially life-saving stem cells.
Nick Carter is not the only celeb to extoll the virtues of holding on to gestational ephemera. Audrina Partridge went with ViaCord private banking services. In 2012, Giuliana Rancic was a paid spokesperson for Cord Blood Registry (CBR), a company that is also rumored to hold the cord blood of Tori Spelling's offspring, though I could not confirm this. Kourtney Kardashian was photographed with a collection kit from StemCyte. So why are all these celebrities storing their babies' blood? Is this a bizarre celebrity luxury like steaming your vagina, or asking to be excluded from the narrative? Or is cord blood banking actually useful?
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"Cord blood is currently used to treat blood cancers like leukemia, as well as lymphoma, neuroblastoma, and hemoglobin opathies like sickle cell," says Dr. Rebecca Haley of Bloodworks Northwest. "We have banked 11,000 cord blood units and shipped a thousand," she says.
Cord blood banking works in two ways. For those who use private banks, like Partridge and Rancic, the bank keeps their child's cord and placenta blood, so should their child become ill, their donations could be harvested for treatment purposes. With public blood banks, donors can deposit their baby's blood for free, with the understanding that they can't necessarily access their children's blood if they need it. Public cord blood banks are connected by an international registry; doctors can access blood from around the world to treat their patients.
Cord blood is the body's ultimate self-repair kit.
Cord blood contains a type of stem cell called a hematopoietic stem cell. These stem cells are the building blocks of our blood and immune system. When treating leukemia, for example, a cord blood transplant would take place after chemotherapy because chemo destroys the blood-producing cells in the bone marrow. The cord blood stem cells are introduced into the bone marrow of a patient, where they "fill the marrow, as it would naturally," Haley says. The healthy blood-producing cells replace the sick ones and help to keep the leukemia in remission.
A varied supply of public cord blood is important to medicine, as a child's own cord blood may not always be the most useful in treating a blood disorder. If your child has sickle cell anemia, for example, their cord blood will as well. "For a genetic disease, the cord blood would have the exact same disease," says Dr. Heather Brown. Brown is the vice president of scientific and medical affairs at CBR, the private bank where both Rancic and Spelling deposited their cord blood. However, she doesn't have any insight into the rise of celebrity cord blood banking. ("I didn't even know Audrina was pregnant," she says.)
Private banking, unlike the public option, costs money. A Vogue article published in February of this year listed the average price of private cord blood banking at $2,000 for the initial banking, with a yearly storage fee of $150. What that buys you is guaranteed stem cells for your family. Stem cells need to match the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) profile of the donor. "Siblings have a 25 percent chance of having an exact HLA match," says Brown.
Private banks can also use cord blood for more unproven treatments, whereas public banks are FDA-mandated to only provide cord blood for FDA-approved treatments. There are whole worlds of regenerative therapies being explored currently by private banks. "We are funding clinical trials for the treatment of autism, cerebral palsy, other types of brain injuries like pediatric strokes, and even type 1 diabetes," Brown says.
"Cord blood is the body's ultimate self-repair kit," she explains. "By trying these stem cells on other diseases, the hope is that they'll kick start the body's self-repair system. We think that's what we're seeing with these initial studies." For these future cures, you may very well want your child's cord blood. But the research is still in the early stages. "At a recent conference someone presented their initial findings of a study where patients were treated with their own cord blood for their cerebral palsy," Brown says. "All of us are dying to get our hands on that data."
Merry Duffy of the National Marrow Donor Program is cautiously optimistic about the research being done on cord blood's regenerative properties. "It shows a lot of promise, but there's a lot more work to be done," Duffy says. She says that cord blood has already been approved by the FDA to treat "around 80 different diseases."
I asked Duffy if public cord blood banking had any celebrity endorsements, like the private sector. There is one: former Minnesota Twins first baseman Ron Carew. In 1995, Carew's daughter, Michelle, was diagnosed with Leukemia. She needed a bone marrow transplant and her Panamanian heritage complicated the matter. Ethnic minorities often have a hard time finding donors because their HLA profiles don't match the majority. Cord blood donations, however, don't need to be as exact a match because the stem cells are less mature and more malleable. The following year Michelle was able to receive a cord blood donation—a procedure that was rare at the time—but it was too late. "He brought a lot of attention to the need for minority donors," Duffy says.
Whether private of public, it turns out that cord blood banking is scientifically sound—and it could potentially save your life. I can't wait to find out I was wrong about cryofacials, too.