NEW ORLEANS - Twelve-year-old Kendill Molette and his 2-year-old sister Khenadi have a special bond. She may not realize it but it was the umbilical cord saved from Khenadi's birth that cured Kendill of sickle cell anemia.
"Now I'm able to play certain sports I wouldn't be able to play and I might live longer now that I don't have it," Kendill said with gratitude.
Their mother Kieoka Harris came across the idea to bank her daughter's umbilical cord blood through online research, and the stem cells turned out to be a perfect match for Kendill.
"I didn't know anything about cord blood at all," said Harris. "I hadn't heard of it, and I didn't know that the possibility was so great for curing him of sickle cell."
Mari Webb didn't know the possibilities either, but cord blood from her second child cured her first child of cancer.
"I think of how many lives are just being tossed out the door, tossed out the window," said Webb who wrote a book about the experience. "There's no reason it should be this way."
Research is ongoing but medical professionals are learning more about the benefits of cord blood banking, whether through a private company for your family's potential personal use or through a public bank.
Dr. Lolie Yu at Children's Hospital confirmed she uses cord blood about 50 percent of the time in her patient population and said it's often better to use than bone marrow because you don't need a perfect match with cord blood to have success. "After the baby is delivered then the cord blood is collected, so really it doesn't pose any risk to the baby or to the mother," added Dr. Yu.
And while right now it's unlikely a child would be able to use his/her own cord blood if later diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, because it would have already been contaminated, Dr. Yu said research is being conducted on the future possibilities for which you could use your own blood to cure diseases such as diabetes or spinal injuries. She pointed out preliminary data is showing that cord blood stem cells can be used for juvenile diabetes.
There are informational pamphlets on how to save your cord blood with a private company in some medical centers, but those companies can charge thousands of dollars and some doctors say it may not be worth it. "If your family is normal, no genetic illnesses no malignancies, then the chance that you would need that cord blood is about one in 2,700," noted Dr. Alfred Robichaux who chairs the Ochsner OBGYN Department.
If you do need the stem cells the value is priceless, and if you already have a child with a curable disease it might not even cost you to bank the cord blood of a sibling. The Cord Blood Registry's Newborn Possibilities Program offers families free collection, processing, and five years of storage. But doctors like Yu and Robicheaux agree if disease doesn't run in your family, you would probably be better off donating your umbilical cord to a public bank, which you can do through the Be The Match Registry of the National Marrow Donor Program.
"When someone donates their cord blood to the Be the Match Registry it is used strictly for saving lives," said Natalie Rowe, noting that no stem cell research is conducted with the donations.
Rowe confirmed donations are very rare saying part of the problem is that people are not educated on the fact that they can donate their cord blood to save a life. "It rarely happens, so we want to increase that number and we want to change that," she said. "We want to get more expecting mothers to know this is an option they have to donate the cord blood so they can save a life."
Several local hospitals admit to wasting an estimated 95 percent of umbilical cords. Rowe explained many hospitals aren't able to participate in a collective cord blood donation effort because of the expense. "It can cost up to $1,500 a unit to collect and store chord blood," she said. Robichaux added, "It’s a great idea and we’d love to do it we just haven’t gotten there yet."
Rowe advises expecting mothers who would like to donate their cord blood to discuss their intentions with their doctors or midwifes by six to eight weeks before scheduled delivery. The doctor or midwife will need to get certification to collect cord blood donation, which Rowe says consists of watching a video online, and the Be The Match Registry will ship the mother a kit to take with her when she delivers. After the delivery the hospital will put the cord in a kit and ship back to the participating bank. It's up to expecting mothers to tell their doctors or midwives if they don't want their umbilical cords to go to waste. "If the hospital throws it away that's a life that could have been saved," said Rowe.