Umbilical Cord Blood Donation: The Basics

Autor: Marisa Healy, BSN, RN
Fecha de la última revisión: December 05, 2023

What is the umbilical cord?

As a baby grows inside a woman's womb, the umbilical cord sends nutrients and oxygen to the baby. The umbilical cord runs from the baby’s belly (place where the belly button will be) to the placenta in the mother’s womb. The cord has a few large vessels that pass blood and nutrients from the mother to the baby.

What are stem cells?

Stem cells are a type of cell that can mature, or turn into, many types of blood cells or immune cells. These stem cells are found in the bone marrow, the umbilical cord, and in the blood (in smaller amounts). The blood found in the umbilical cord (often called cord blood) has many blood stem cells.

How can cord blood be used?

After the baby is born, the umbilical cord and placenta are no longer needed and are often thrown away as medical waste. However, the blood left in the umbilical cord and placenta has lots of stem cells. These healthy stem cells can be collected and frozen to be used by patients who need an allogeneic (donor) transplant. Allogeneic stem cell transplant can be used to treat many things, like leukemia, lymphoma, aplastic anemia, sickle cell anemia, and more.

When a patient needs an allogeneic transplant, they may be able to get cells that “match” their cells from a family member, a person on the bone marrow registry, or from a cord blood unit. Cord blood that is used for transplants is donated by families after the birth of their child.

How does a mother donate cord blood?

Not all areas have a cord blood bank that can take donations. If you would like to donate cord blood, check the Be The Match listing of cord blood banks to see if there is one in your area. If there is, call the bank for more information. There are strict rules for health and exposure to viruses and infectious diseases. The cord blood bank will have you fill out a consent form and health history before delivery. After the baby's delivery, the staff at your hospital will collect your cord blood.

What happens to the cord blood after it leaves the hospital?

When the cord blood unit gets to the cord blood bank from the hospital, it is tested to make sure it has no signs of infection or other issues. It is checked to be sure it is large enough (has enough blood-forming cells) to be used for a transplant. If there are not enough cells, the cord blood may be used for research to improve transplants for future patients.

The unit is tissue typed and listed on the bone marrow donor registry and the National Cord Blood Inventory (NCBI). The donation remains anonymous, meaning it is identified by a number and never by name. It is kept frozen in a liquid nitrogen freezer. The umbilical cord blood can be stored for a very long time. Studies are ongoing to figure out the storage life of cord blood units. Current research suggests that cord blood, if handled and stored correctly, can be frozen for more than 20 years without losing its benefits for transplant.

Once it is stored, it is available for a transplant if a patient needs it. When a patient needs a transplant, their providers can search a list of the donated cord blood units and the bone marrow donors on the registry to find a match.

Does it cost anything to donate cord blood?

There is no cost for donating. Unrelated donor cord blood banks will take care of the procedure and cover the cost of processing and storing your baby's cord blood unit.

Can my family use this cord blood if needed?

No, cord blood listed on the registry is available to anyone but is not held for your family specifically. Parents do have the option of storing cord blood for use within their own family through a private bank for a fee.

Should I save my baby’s cord blood for my family’s future use?

Donating your child's cord blood or storing it for private use is a personal decision that only you can make. Families may feel pressured by marketing from for-profit cord blood banks. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that private banking only be used if a family member has a current or possible need for a stem cell transplant due to a known illness or genetic defect.

The cord blood of a sibling has a 30% chance of matching their sibling. Donations to public banks are used 30 times more often than those stored at private banks.

How is cord blood helping patients?

When a patient has a diverse racial or ethnic background, they have a harder time finding a match who can donate stem cells to them. Cord blood donations have helped these patients.

Donating cord blood can help save a life. Talk with your care team about donating cord blood and how it can help people in the future.

Be The Match: Cord Blood and Transplants.

Ballen, K. (2017). Umbilical cord blood transplantation: challenges and future directions. Stem cells translational medicine, 6(5), 1312-1315. Donating Umbilical Cord Blood.

Gupta AO, Wagner JE. Umbilical Cord Blood Transplants: Current Status and Evolving Therapies. Front Pediatr. 2020 Oct 2;8:570282. doi: 10.3389/fped.2020.570282. PMID: 33123504; PMCID: PMC7567024.

Health Resources and Services Administration. 2023. The Need for More Cord Blood Donations. Taken from Cord blood stem cell transplant facts.

Shearer WT, Lubin BH, Cairo MS, Notarangelo LD; SECTION ON HEMATOLOGY/ONCOLOGY; SECTION ON ALLERGY AND IMMUNOLOGY. Cord Blood Banking for Potential Future Transplantation. Pediatrics. 2017 Nov;140(5):e20172695. doi: 10.1542/peds.2017-2695. PMID: 29084832; PMCID: PMC6091883.

Waller-Wise R. Umbilical Cord Blood Banking: An Update For Childbirth Educators. J Perinat Educ. 2022 Oct 1;31(4):199-205. doi: 10.1891/JPE-2021-0006. PMID: 36277229; PMCID: PMC9584102.

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