stem-cell-research-goes-greenRecycling. Renewable Resources. Sustainability. We know these words well. But when it comes to human sustainability and health, we have a largely untapped resource that is proving to be more valuable than we might dare to imagine. Fittingly, it comes to us from our very first lifeline: the umbilical cord. Umbilical cord blood is already improving health and saving lives. At the Banking on Life Conference (May, 2009), sponsored by the Center for Bioethics and Culture and Cord Blood Registry, leaders from around the world in the field of umbilical cord blood stem-cell research and regenerative medicine treated attendees to a detailed update on progress being made in the use of cord blood in research and clinical applications. Conference attendees also heard from U.S. Congresswoman Jackie Speier on her efforts to educate the public about cord blood banking, and from two mothers who have seen dramatic health improvement from cord blood therapy in their daughters who suffered pediatric strokes.

Two particular facts stand out from this conference. First, umbilical cord blood is providing us with the best source of stem-cells that can be used in patients. And second, there is not enough of it being banked. With much of the stem-cell controversy these days raging over whether we should pursue work on embryonic or adult type cells, in umbilical cord blood we have a rich supply of the “adult” type stem-cells which we can mine without any of the ethical controversies that have beset stem-cell research thus far. But why are cord blood cells “the best?” According to panelist Dr. Ian Rogers, the cells we obtain from umbilical cord blood have advantages that we don’t find in embryonic or adult iPS cells (iPS cells being what we call “induced pluripotent stem-cells,” which are essentially adult stem cells that can be “induced” to become any kind of cell in the body.). Both embryonic stem-cells and iPS cells still have the larger problem of tumor formation, and embryonic stem-cells develop chromosomal abnormalities. As Dr. Rogers said, “These are not the kinds of cells we want to start using clinically.” Not only this, but cord blood stem-cells, according to panelist Dr. James Baumgartner, have an ability to get into an area of the body such as the brain, home in on the damaged area and start going to work. These stem-cells do not go the healthy area of the brain where they are not needed.

Cord blood cells are now offering treatment for roughly 85 diseases, and this list is increasing every year. The researchers at this conference are seeing results with vascular diseases, neural damage, brain trauma, and diabetes. Cord blood is potentially able to help with Muscular Dystrophy, as well as bone and tissue engineering. When it comes to spinal cord injuries and the use of cord blood, doctors are looking at re-myelination (Myelin is the fatty tissue along nerve dendrons that allows for neural impulses to move freely) due to injury or degeneration (e.g., Multiple Sclerosis).

So why aren’t more people being treated with umbilical cord blood? We simply don’t have enough of it. Talk about the need for recycling. Congresswoman Speier noted that ninety-five percent of cord blood is simply thrown away at birth, unused. Further, the researchers explained the practical and economic difficulties that attend to cord blood banking. Currently, most banking is done privately, but the cost of such banking tends to be somewhat prohibitive, and privately banked blood is obviously not available to large swaths of the public. Moves have been made toward public banking, but as Dr. Colin McGuckin, President of the French based Cell Therapy Research Institute, notes, “The public banking system does not want to have a proper dialogue with the private banking system. Public bank after public bank after public bank have been shut down for lack of funding or other problems.” McGuckin believes that there should be some kind of public/private partnership for banking and that pediatricians and OBGYN’s must ultimately be the ones to take the lead on this.

Doctors speaking at the conference were careful not to over-promise what cord blood can actually do in the short-term, but even at this leading edge in the research, there is a great energy and desire to see what might be in store. It was exciting to find people coming together from widely divergent social, political and religious backgrounds to find common ground in the fight for regenerative medical breakthroughs.

Because there is such a need for more public education on umbilical cord blood, the CBC is making available the entire conference on DVD. You will hear not only from panel doctors and researchers on the results they are seeing in their own work, but from those who are working in the political and public policy arena of cord blood banking. In addition, you will find question and answer sessions with each of the speakers. We highly commend these conference DVDs to you so that the promising results we are seeing from cord blood thus far might become a more widespread reality.


Michael Duenes deeply wants to be a man who, in the words of Flannery O’ Connor, journeys on “the highly dangerous quest” of “stalking joy.” He can be found here where he writes, blogs and podcasts.