More than 4 million babies are born each year in the United States according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Unbeknownst to many of those mothers, as they give life to their newborn baby, they have a chance to give life to another child who they don't even know.
When babies are born, their umbilical cords are cut and the remaining cord is thrown away. That's the standard routine. However, within those discarded cords lie young stem cells that could potentially save the life of a cancer patient or those facing other health conditions -- lives like Steven Gonzalez Jr.
Gonzalez was on a Boy Scout camping trip in 2006 when he woke up sick with a swollen face. After a trip to the hospital, Gonzalez was soon diagnosed with an aggressive form of acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The 12-year-old was given a 2% chance of survival.
Pediatric oncologists at MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital knew that standard chemotherapy would unlikely be enough to cure Gonzalez from his leukemia, and a bone marrow transplant would be necessary. When a search of the Be the Match registry failed to find Gonzalez a bone marrow donor, he was left with one option -- an umbilical cord blood stem cell transplant.
Now, more than five years since his transplant, Gonzalez is cancer free and devoting his time to building his foundation, Survivor Games, to support and connect pediatric cancer patients through playing video games.
According to the National Marrow Donor Program, 7 out of 10 people will have to look outside their family for a suitably matched bone marrow donor. However, for minority patients like Gonzalez, their chances for finding a donor in the Be a Match Registry are much lower. In fact, more than 40% of minority patients who have received a transplant used cord blood.
Cord blood is easier to match than bone marrow because the young cells in cord blood are naïve and able to graft more easily to the patient, lowering the risk of graft-versus-host disease. Another advantage to cord blood is its availability. Patients with aggressive cancers can more rapidly access the cord blood, which is stored and ready, whereas waiting on bone marrow donors could take two to four months.
More cords needed in public cord bank
Millions of babies are born each year, yet fewer than 800,000 cords are available internationally through cord blood banks.
Elizabeth Shpall, M.D., is director of MD Anderson's Cord Blood Bank located within the nation's largest bone marrow and cord blood transplant center. She is a renowned expert in cord blood transplantation and advocate for public cord blood banking. Shpall continuously works to increase the amount of cords available to patients, especially those donated by minorities.
"African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and other ethnicities have a more complicated gene pool, making it more difficult to find them a good match for transplant. Minorities are also underrepresented in the national registry, which contributes to the difficulty," Shpall says. "This is more reason for mothers from different ethnicities to donate their baby's cord blood. It causes no harm to the mother or baby, it's free, and it can potentially save a life."
Shpall says many parents believe that saving their baby's cord blood privately will give them a chance to use the cord blood later if their child gets sick. However, that's a common misperception.
"If your child gets cancer, we wouldn't want to use his or her cord blood because the cells have already shown they are predisposed to being cancerous. The chances are very small that you would use your child's own cord blood for any kind of treatment later on."
There are circumstances when parents could use their child's cord blood for donation to a sibling. But overall, Shpall feels the best chance for mothers to offer a life-saving option is by donating their baby's cord to one of the national cord blood centers for public banking.
Gonzalez would agree. His cure, via a cord blood transplant, has gifted him with a new lease on life.
"I try to live each day to the fullest, knowing that it could be my last."