Cutting the cord now stores new hope for stem cell research

Umbilical cord blood is collected after the baby has been born and the umbilical cord has been clamped and cut.
Umbilical cord blood is collected after the baby has been born and the umbilical cord has been clamped and cut.

YOU are full of billions of them.

They are the building blocks of life.

They are stem cells, and very few of us pay them the respect they deserve.

Not because we don't care; we just don't realise how remarkable they are.

What are stem cells?

Our bodies are made up of about 200 different kinds of specialised cells (such as muscle cells, nerve cells, fat cells and skin cells).

All of these specialised cells originate from stem cells.

A stem cell is basically a cell that is not yet specialised; a blank canvas.

Stem cells can be divided into two broad groups: those that can go on to become any type of cell in the body (pluripotent), and those that can only become certain types of cells (multipotent).

The pluripotent stem cells are the cause of much controversy and debate, because these cells are sourced from aborted fetuses and embryos (excess ones produced from in vitro fertilisation), before they've had a chance to become specialised.


Umbilical cord stem cells

Umbilical cord stem cell collection is on the rise in Australia.

There isn't the same controversy surrounding this type of stem cell research as there is with the embryonic stem cells, as the cord blood is collected after the baby has been born and the umbilical cord has been clamped and cut.

If not collected, this blood would otherwise be thrown away.

The procedure is painless and risk-free to both mother and baby, it takes about three minutes and doesn't alter the birthing process in any way.

The number of diseases treatable by these cells is increasing all the time, as is awareness among parents of the exact implications of storing their baby's cord blood and cord tissue.

But the process is slow. The cord blood and tissue banking industry is only 10 years old in Australia, and 20 years globally.

A 2009 estimate showed the proportion of parents storing umbilical cord blood privately in Australia was less than 1%, compared to 6%-8% in the United States, 24% in Singapore and 50% in Korea.

The world's first cord blood transplantation was performed in America in 1988, effectively curing a boy of Fanconi's anemia.

This was the first disease found to be treatable by stem cells.

By the year 2000 there were 44 diseases on that list; and in 2010, that number had grown to 80.

So far, researchers have successfully transplanted cord blood stem cells in the treatment of a number of blood diseases and cancers, including leukemia, anemias and immuno-deficiency diseases.

"And there are many more potential therapies in clinical trials," Peter D'Arcy, the CEO of private cord material bank StemLife, said.

"Researchers in Australia and worldwide are working on developing stem cell treatments for disorders such as Parkinson's disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal injuries and organ repair.

"Stem cells are also key to the emerging field of regenerative medicine, which promises new cures for previously untreatable conditions.

"A baby's umbilical cord blood is a rich source of hematopoietic stem cells. Cord blood stem cells have the unique ability to renew themselves and become any of the cell types found in blood.

"Cord tissue is a source of many cell types, including mesenchymal stem cells. Researchers have discovered that MSCs will play a major role in future clinical therapies using regenerative medicine.

"This research holds the promise of regenerating damaged tissues and organs by stimulating the body to heal itself.

"Trials are under way using MSCs to treat debilitating conditions such as heart disease, stroke, liver disease, Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injury.

"Cord blood and cord tissue provide different types of stem cells. Storing both gives a greater number and variety of cells.

"This may increase the potential to treat a broader range of diseases."


Public cord blood banking

There is an extensive public cord blood banking system in Australia, and worldwide, where parents can donate their child's umbilical cord blood, which can then be used for a potentially life-saving transplant for a patient.

These patients need to be matched with the cord blood that is the closest match to their own tissue.

There are over 300,000 units registered worldwide for public use, increasing the chances a suitable match can be made.

There are three major public cord blood banks in Australia.

To learn how to donate or obtain core blood phine Sydney Core Blood Bank on 02 9382 0371 or go to


Private cord blood banking

StemLife ( is one of only three private cord blood and tissue banking services in Australia.

There is also CellCare Australia ( and Cryosite (

Prices between the companies vary, but the general range is about $1000 for cord tissue collection and $3000 to store cord blood for 25 years.

It is thought that cord material can be safely stored for up to 70 years, but the industry is too young to have tested that.

"It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide protection and security for families," Mr D'Arcy said.

"Cord blood storage should be considered especially by families with a history of blood disorders, cancer, for parents who have been adopted and IVF babies."





When elderly mice were injected with stem cells from younger mice at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Pittsburgh, the results shocked even the scientists.

The study mice were genetically engineered to have a condition similar to a rare human syndrome called progeria, in which children age quickly and die young.

These fast-aging mice typically die around 21 days after birth.

Given the injection approximately four days before they were expected to die, not only did the elderly mice live - they lived three times their normal lifespan, living on for a further 71 days.

In human terms, that would be the equivalent of an 80-year-old living to be 200.


>> To read more lifestyle stories

Topics:  babies health lifestyle research science stem cells

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