Special Like Starfish: The “Liquid Gold” Within the Umbilical Cord


With strength and grace, and always sporting a fashionable scrunchie in her long blonde hair, she vaulted and tumbled into gymnastics history in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, winning gold medals and our hearts. With seven Olympic and nine World Championship medals, Shannon Miller is the single most decorated U.S. gymnast, male or female.

Years later, after the birth of her first child, Rocco, Miller was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of ovarian cancer. She made the incredibly difficult decision to have doctors remove her left ovary, even though it meant it could make it more difficult to have more children. Miller was devastated. She wanted another child deeply.

Like the true champion she is, Miller overcame the odds and is pregnant with her second child. “What I learned through gymnastics was that we are all going to fall on our backside a time or two,” says Miller. “The most important thing is how we rise to meet those challenges.”

One way Miller decided to prepare for future health challenges is to privately bank her baby’s cord blood. “Having battled a rare form of ovarian cancer myself, I understand that our health must be a priority,” says Miller. “If there is something I can do today, like banking our children’s cord blood, that could help my kids’ children down the road, then I’m going to do it.”

Along with what color to paint the nursery and what to name the baby, the decision of what to do with their baby’s cord blood is now another choice parents-to-be must make.

Nancy Swanson is grateful for the mother who opted to publically donate her baby’s cord blood to the National Marrow Donor Registry. Swanson’s 3-year-old son, Noah, can answer almost any question thrown his way about the exotic four-legged creatures at his favorite place to visit, the Phoenix Zoo. “Walking around a public place like that, he looks just like any other child who is there,” Swanson explains. “No one would ever know he needs a transplant to save his life.”

Noah’s body hides a blood disease preventing him from creating mature blood cells, including white blood cells to fight infections. Doctors want to perform a stem-cell transplant for Noah, using donated umbilical-cord cells from the National Marrow Donor Program. “It is so incredible — the gift one mom can give another mother,” says Swanson. “This most precious gift brings hope to save my son’s life.”

Much like a starfish can grow a new leg, cord blood contains stem cells that can differentiate, or change, into any cell in the body. More than 80 diseases are being treated with stem cells collected from umbilical-cord blood.

“Stem cells from umbilical-cord blood are currently being used to treat patients with cerebral palsy, brain injury, and spinal cord injury,” says Charis Ober, co-founder of Save the Cord Foundation, a nonprofit organization with a mission of bringing cord-blood education to expectant parents so they can make informed decisions about saving their newborn’s cord blood. Ober says that in the future, cord-blood stem cells and cord tissue may be used to grow and regenerate organs and tissue and to recreate damaged limbs.

Six-year-old Luke Fryer was helped with cells his parents privately banked at birth. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and became part of a study at Duke University. His transfusion with his own cord blood at age 15 months resulted in amazing progress, and his parents and doctors have marveled at the significant improvements in Luke’s balance, speech and coordination, as well as his ability to ride a bike and play like other children his age. Clinical trials are being done in diabetes, Parkinson’s, acquired hearing loss, hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy, and cardiac disease.

The work being done with cord-blood stem cells for brain health or regenerative medicine is among some of the most exciting developments today, according to Dr. Karen Taylor, a board-certified OB/GYN and the director of education and collections for StemCyte, the world’s foremost therapeutic cord-blood bank, which specializes in private and public cord-blood banking. “When cord blood was first used in transplant it was noted patients who also had a brain process such as any damage or tumor in their brain were having engraftment of the donor’s cells in their brain,” says Taylor. “The stem cells ‘know’ where to go regardless of where they are given due to the fact that there are signals — hormones and cytokines — in the cord blood that bring the stem cells to the damaged area.”

Taylor adds that notable studies are being done by Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg at Duke which suggest stem cells in umbilical-cord blood can get into the brain and provide critical enzymes and other gene products that may be absent or dysfunctional in the brain. Dr. Eva Feldman is doing work at the University of Michigan, looking for cures/treatments for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), aka Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Professor John Lin at China Medical University has transplanted peripheral blood stem cells into the brains of patients with chronic stroke. Patients not only show significant improvements of their motor and other functions, but imaging suggests that, with time, there is regeneration of fibers in the injured areas of their brains.

One of the most brilliant minds in umbilical-cord blood science, Dr. Wise Young, Ph.D., M.D., the founding director of the W.M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience and a board member at StemCyte, is doing clinical trials using cord-blood stem cells in patients with chronic spinal-cord injuries. Young found evidence that as many as 40 percent of patients with implanted umbilical-cord blood mononuclear cells will show evidence of long tract regrowth in the spinal cord, taking place between six and 18 months after transplantation. “If confirmed, this may be the first incidence of spinal-cord regeneration in humans,” Dr. Young says enthusiastically.

Most cord blood is discarded as medical waste, Taylor explains. “No matter what hospital you deliver at, you can save cord blood for your family’s use, or, if you choose to donate this valuable blood, you will need to deliver at a hospital where a public donation program is set up.”

Umbilical-cord blood is not embryonic-cord blood, and is not controversial. For more information, please visit the National Marrow Donor Program at bethematch.com. About 200 U.S. hospitals currently participate in collecting public donations.

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