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Umbilical cord blood stem cells FAQs

WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

What are cord blood stem cells?

Umbilical cord blood remains in the placenta and umbilical cord after a baby is born. This blood is rich in stem cells, which may be able to help to cure some life threatening diseases.

Cord blood may be stored for the mother herself privately, or can be donated to the NHS Cord Blood Bank for general use.

Stem cells are immature cells that can transform into other kinds of cells and reproduce themselves. Umbilical cord blood stem cells are collected from the umbilical cord at birth and can produce all of the blood cell types in the body.

Cord blood stem cells can be used to treat blood-related diseases such as leukaemia, lymphoma, sickle cell anaemia and other diseases such as immune diseases and metabolic diseases. They can also treat people whose bone marrow has been damaged by chemotherapy or radiotherapy. During treatment these cells are injected into the bloodstream. Once there, doctors hope that they will make new, healthy blood cells.

Experts hope that very primitive embryonic stem cells will become a treatment for all sorts of diseases in the future such as Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and other conditions, but for now these applications are only theoretical.

How are these cord blood stem cells collected?

The procedure is simple. It's safe and painless for both mother and child. Straight after birth the umbilical cord is clamped and cut, and the baby is handed to a nurse. Meanwhile a doctor or nurse uses a sterile solution to wash a small area of the umbilical cord that is still attached to the placenta. Then they will place a needle into the cord's umbilical vein. The blood will flow by gravity through the needle, through a tube and into a collection bag. The whole process takes a few minutes.

Collecting cord blood is not always possible. For instance if there are any problems with the delivery - either for the mother or child - the doctors will want to focus on helping them instead of taking the cord blood.

Collecting cord blood isn't routine in the UK, so you'll need to set up the procedure with the hospital or laboratory in advance. Experts recommend that you contact the cord blood bank before your 34th week of pregnancy.

How long does cord blood last?

The NHS Cord Blood bank stores cord blood until it is given to a patient needing a stem cell transplant. It is thought that stem cells can remain healthy 10 to 20 years or longer.

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