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Stem Cell Research and Treatment Boosted by Umbilical Cord Donation

By Sonji Jacobs, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 19, 2007

So a sick person could use the stem cells for disease treatment, Suzanne and Brian Eplett wanted to donate the baby's umbilical cord blood when the couple was expecting five years ago.

But they were stopped in their tracks when it became apparent that donating to a public bank would be difficult if not impossible. The couple recently had a third child named Keith on Tuesday. After being delivered at the DeKalb Medical Center, they jumped at the chance to have their newborn's cord blood collected. The process was simple this time around. A company that works with the hospital to collect and store cord blood, StemCyte, accepted the donation and stored the cord blood for them.

"I'd much rather have the cord blood be used by someone who needs it than have it be thrown away," Suzanne Eplett, 33, said several hours after her C-section.

In a similar situation, Janiya Alexis was born on October 5th. Yolanda Gurley was a proud first time mother, especially since the Douglasville mother was able to not only bring a new life into the world, but possible save another in the process.

"If someone else benefits from it, if it saves another life, perfect," said Gurley, 36.

In the unfortunate case that a baby, sibling, or other family member developed a disease that could be treated with stem cells, families have had the option to privately store their baby's umbilical cord blood for several years. Donating baby's cord blood to public banks is now being encouraged by many experts and doctors.

Families in metro Atlanta now have an option for public donation in the new program at DeKalb Medical.

A patient who has diseases such as sickle cell anemia or leukemia may someday be treated with the stem cells taken from Keith's and Janiya's umbilical cord blood. Nerve, muscle, and blood cells are among the numerous examples of cells types and tissues that can be developed from immature stem cells. There are a multitude of sources for stem cells which include; circulating blood, bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, fetal tissue, and the controversial and still unproven human embryo.

Dozens of diseases and conditions have been treated with stem cells taken from bone marrow and umbilical cord blood. In 1988, doctors performed the first cord blood transplant from a donor who was a sibling of the patient. The first successful cord blood transplants from a donor not related to the patient was preformed by Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg of Duke University Medical Center 5 years later. Over 8,000 cord blood transplants have been performed by doctors worldwide.

DeKalb Medical's cord blood donation program is recommended to patients by Dr. Stuart Pancer. He is a gynecologist and obstetrician who practices in Tucker. "Medical waste" is the term that defines most umbilical cords after delivery, this includes their stem cell-rich blood says Tucker.

Private storage can be expensive. Collection plus the first year of storage costs $2,000 with bank such as ViaCord or Cry-Cell. After the initial cost, storage is about $125 a year. None the less, this is an option that some patients take.

Private cord blood banking is unaffordable for most of his patients said Pancer. Additionally, the need for a cord blood transplant for disease treatment specifically for the baby or a family member is low. The family member is not guaranteed to be a compatible recipient for a child's cord blood either.

"You pay a lot of money for something that 99 percent of the time you won't ever need," Pancer said. "Now comes the possibility of donating and helping treat disease, not just for the person donating but for other people. You can't beat that."

The private company route was out of the question for Suzanne Eplett and her husband.

"We didn't want to pay all that money for something we might not ever need or use."

Umbilical cord and bone marrow stem cells, and the process of collecting them is non-controversial. This is in stark contrast to research that involves human embryos. Opponents argue that it crosses a moral line because it destroys the embryo and they say, a potential human life, but supporters of human embryonic research say it may lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of ailments such as cancer, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.

Cord blood stem cells therapies are supported by many medical experts regardless of their position on embryonic stem cell research. In order to maximize the chances of a sick person finding a genetically suitable sample or a "match", experts also support public cord blood banking. More often than not, it is difficult to find suitable cord blood samples when members of racial and ethnic minority groups are involved, such as African Americans or Asians.

Establishing public cord blood banks have become a priority for several states including Georgia. A measure that seeks to create a cord blood bank or network of such banks in the state, Senate Bill 148, was approved by Georgia State Legislature earlier this year. Seeking grants for non-embryonic stem cell research and overseeing a system of umbilical cord blood banks would be a 15-member state commission established by the new law, which was signed by Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Cord blood units for both public and private use is collected by StemCyte, the California-based company that works with DeKalb Medical. In order to safely process and prepare the cord blood for shipment to its storage facilities, the company employs three collection specialists who work under the supervision of hospital staff at DeKalb Medical.

Without paying a fee to StemCyte, any woman who donates her baby's cord blood may be able to use it for a family member if necessary under the program established at DeKalb Medical.

Dr. Robert Chow, StemCyte's founder, said he wants to provide cord blood samples to people from all ethnic and racial backgrounds. The racially diverse community DeKalb Medical serves was a selling point for establishing a program at the facility said Chow, who is Asian-American.

"We're hoping to give life to people," Chow said. "Our mission is to provide cord blood stem cell therapy to every patient in need."


 

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