October 13, 1995
Web posted at: 11:20 p.m. EDT
From Correspondent Christine Negroni
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Doctors and scientists have long admired the way the placenta and umbilical cord provide a conduit for the human fetus to receive everything it needs until the day a child is born. After birth, however, they are discarded as little more than biological waste.
But new attention is being paid to the umbilical cord as researchers consider whether it can be used to treat a variety of blood diseases and genetic disorders.
Biological trash is on the way to becoming a biological treasure because the blood in the newborn placenta and umbilical cord is special. "There are a very large number of the cells called stem cells in the blood of a child at the time of birth," says Pablo Rubinstein of the New York Blood Center.
Stem cells are treasured because they develop into all the other kinds of blood cells. If it works as expected, stem cells, oriented from the afterbirth, could be used instead of bone marrow stem cells to treat patients with life- threatening blood diseases, like leukemia.
"We have to find out whether it lives up to its promise, and that will take up to two to three years," says Dr. Paul McCurty with the National Heart and Lung Blood Association. "If it does live up to its promises, then it will be a big boon."
There are many advantages to getting stem cells from placental blood rather than bone marrow. Bone marrow is hard to match and difficult to obtain. Placental blood, on the other hand, is simple to get and once transplanted is less likely to be rejected by the recipient.
When doctors at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital couldn't find a marrow donor for 15-year-old leukemia patient Azmund Stroud, they searched through the New York Blood Center's bank that makes placental blood available to the public. But the few community banks are not alone. Several private companies now pitch the same service to expectant parents who want to store their baby's placental blood.
Through sales tapes and childbirth classes, parents are told that for about $15,000 they can store their child's stem cells is a way to protect them against future disease.
Critics, like ethicist Art Caplan, are not convinced. "I think we're in danger right now of seeing a little too much hype, a little too much aggressive marketing. It's really not where the technique is at yet."
The National Institutes of Health is spending $24 million to learn more about potential uses of stem cells. But it's clear to those involved that learning more about biology is just the beginning. Commercial and ethical dilemmas must be addressed as well.
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