A national umbilical cord blood bank is being established in Canada to help patients who are in urgent need of a stem cell transplant.
Blood that remains in the umbilical cord and placenta after birth is a rich source of stem cells. They are capable of turning into all types of blood cells, including oxygen-carrying red cells, infection-fighting white cells, and clotting platelets. That means they can be used to treat a variety of blood and immune disorders, such as leukemia and aplastic anemia.
At present, most "cord blood" is discarded. Some parents pay to have their children's cord blood stored in private banks. But these reserves are available only to the family.
A national cord blood bank "would be open to any Canadian patient in need," said Sue Smith, executive director of stem cells for Canadian Blood Services.
Earlier this week, the health ministers representing the provincial and territorial governments, with the exception of Quebec, announced they will invest $36-million to set up the bank. An additional $12-million will come from public fundraising. (Quebec has its own program to bank cord blood.)
Ms. Smith said it should take about two years to establish a system of collecting, processing and storage. The initial operations will be based in Ottawa. Collection of cord blood will be expanded later to include hospitals in Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver.
Once the system is up and running, parents will be asked to donate their newborn's cord blood to the public bank.
Last year, more than 800 Canadian patients were seeking stem cell transplants. But less than half found suitable matches among adult donors.
Stem cells from cord blood tend to produce fewer complications in transplant patients, so they don't always need to be a perfect match.