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Q&A: What to Know About Cord Blood Donation

CancerWise - June 2007

Pregnant women can donate their umbilical cord blood after their babies’ births so that cancer patients in need of stem cell transplants have another option in addition to bone marrow donation.

M. D. Anderson’s Cord Blood Bank is one of many institutions worldwide that collect and store umbilical cord blood units from consenting mothers after the births of their infants.

Answering questions about the cord donation process is Elizabeth Shpall, M.D., director of the M. D. Anderson Cord Blood Bank and a professor in M. D. Anderson’s Department of Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy.

Why are stem cells collected for cancer patients?

Stem cells from bone marrow and umbilical cord blood are transplanted to regenerate blood cells destroyed by radiation therapy or cancer-killing drugs.

What is the challenge of bone marrow transplants?

Finding an exact donor match for a bone marrow transplant can take several months, and sometimes a perfect match is never found.

One reason cord blood transplants are becoming an attractive alternative to bone marrow transplants is that stem cells from cord blood are frozen and ready to be shipped once identified, so they can be obtained very quickly in situations where patients have rapidly progressive diseases.

Additionally, less matching is needed for cord blood than for marrow, so often this provides more options for patients who are difficult to match.

Why do some women store and others donate cord blood?

Pregnant women may opt to pay companies to store their cord blood so that their child will have a collection of stem cells that is an exact match in the event that he or she becomes seriously ill with a disease such as cancer and needs a stem cell transplant.

In that situation, it is possible that the cord blood would carry the same disease and not be a good stem cell transplant for that patient. There also is a possibility that the child’s stem cells might be a match for a sibling in need of a transplant.

If a pregnant woman chooses to donate her cord blood to a cord blood center, it allows doctors to use those stem cells for potentially life-saving transplants in patients with cancer and other diseases of the bone marrow or immune system.

How is cord blood collected?

Immediately after the baby is delivered:

  • The child is separated from the umbilical cord
  • The umbilical cord is clamped, and blood is collected
  • The blood is delivered to the cord blood bank

Neither the mother nor baby feels anything.

What happens to the cord blood after it is collected?

When the cord blood is received at the bank, it is:

  • Tested for infectious diseases and other problems
  • Cryopreserved (frozen)
  • Recorded in a database
  • Made available to patients around the world

Is it safe to donate cord blood?

Since cord blood is collected after the baby’s birth, there is no risk. It does not interfere with the birth process.

How can a mother donate her umbilical cord?

First, she should find out if there is a blood bank or collection site in her area by asking her obstetrician, or by calling or visiting the National Marrow Donor Program website.

The mother will be required to sign a consent form before she has her baby.

Where does M. D. Anderson collect cord blood?

M. D. Anderson receives cord blood donations from:

  • Ben Taub General Hospital
  • The Woman’s Hospital of Texas

Collectors assist women with the donation process 24 hours a day at these Houston hospitals. M. D. Anderson is working with other local hospitals to initiate collection sites.

What is M. D. Anderson’s donation process?

When a woman is at least 34 weeks pregnant, she can call the Cord Blood Bank at (713) 563-8000 to express her desire to donate.

When she goes to the hospital to deliver the baby, she should ask to see a cord blood collector to complete the paperwork required for cord donation. She also should tell her doctor or a nurse that she plans to donate her cord blood.

How many cord blood banks are there?

There are approximately:

  • 52 in the world
  • 25 in the United States

Last year, the National Marrow Donor Program began a partnership with the International NetCord Foundation, a worldwide network of cord blood banks. The groups’ combined registry will be the world’s largest.

Many banks are tied to academic medical centers.

Why aren’t there more cord blood collection sites?

Many issues must be considered in beginning a site, such as:

  • Protection of donor confidentiality and rights
  • Effectiveness of collection processes
  • Employment and training of collectors
  • Documentation procedures

As the process to donate and utilize cord blood evolves, more donation sites will be formed.

Who is eligible to donate cord blood?

The mother must:

  • Have no pregnancy-related risk factors
  • Be at least 34 weeks pregnant

The mother must not have:

  • Known cancer risks
  • A history of cancer
  • HIV or AIDS
  • Sexually transmitted disease

The baby must:

  • Be a healthy single birth
  • Not have a parent or sibling with a cancer history

There may be other requirements. The cord blood bank will discuss these with the mother.

Is all the cord blood used for transplants?

Sometimes the cord blood sample does not meet the target for quantity of stem cells. Other conditions may make it clinically unsuitable for transplantation.

What happens to cord blood that is not used?

Unused cord blood is:

  • Used for research
  • Used to improve cord blood banking procedures
  • Discarded

How is cord blood matched to a possible recipient?

The National Marrow Donor Program, the International NetCord Foundation and some cord blood banks (including M. D. Anderson’s Cord Blood Bank) maintain registries.

Does it cost to donate cord blood?

There is no cost to donate cord blood.


© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center