Should parents be banking umbilical cord blood?

Parents are opting to freeze the blood from their baby's umbilical cord. (Getty Images)
Some parents are opting to freeze the blood from their baby's umbilical cord. (Getty Images)

Who holds the baby first, who reveals the gender and who gets to cut the cord - there are many decisions new parents have to make after welcoming a new arrival into the world.

But, growing numbers of mums and dads are also considering whether they want to pay to freeze parts of their baby's umbilical cord in case of illness later in life.

Cord blood and tissue is rich in stem cells, which is increasingly being used to treat genetic diseases. This has lead to a number of parents paying thousands to store their baby’s umbilical cord blood with private companies.

Previous figures from the regulator, the Human Tissue Authority (HTA), obtained by the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that 27,028 blood and tissue units were banked privately in 2018 compared with 16,965 units in 2014.

More recently, private cord blood banks reported 437,111 cord blood units being stored as of 31 December 2021.

While there has been an increase in the number of parents banking their baby's cord blood, the overall figures remain fairly low, with figures from Cell Trials Data, a provider of data on clinical trials of advances cell therapy, showing that in the UK just 0.3% of births bank cord blood each year.

As part of a paid social media campaign, Chrissy Teigen recently shared that she's banked cord blood for all four of her children.

Writing on Instagram, she says the move is "a choice you can make as a parent to potentially protect your family."

Former Strictly star Ore Oduba and his wife Portia also decided to bank the cord blood of their second baby.

“For us as a family it was the right decision," Portia explained on Instagram. "If the unthinkable was ever to happen and we could save or help our children and other family members with stem cells, why wouldn’t we?"

What is cord blood banking?

According to the NHS, cord blood is the blood that remains in the placenta and umbilical cord following the birth of your baby.

"It is rich in blood stem cells, similar to those found in bone marrow, and these can be used to treat many different cancers, immune deficiencies and genetic disorders," the site explains.

The ACLT a blood cancer/disorder charity says blood-producing stem cells (called haematopoietic stem cells) are present in cord blood.

"These cells are what we call 'unspecialised', which means that they have the ability to develop into those parts of the blood that the patient's body requires; whether red blood cells, white blood cells or platelets," the charity explains on its website.

Following the birth of a baby, the placenta is usually thrown away along with the cord blood that is in it, but experts are discovering more diseases and conditions that could potentially be treated with stem cells found within cord blood.

While the fees set by private cord blood banks can vary, the HTA estimate it can cost in the region of £2,000 for 20 years of storage. It recommends asking for a breakdown of the charges to find out what is included.

What's the difference between private and public cord blood banking? [Photo: Getty]
What's the difference between private and public cord blood banking? [Photo: Getty]

How is the blood collected?

Collection of cord blood involves clamping and removing the cord and placenta as usual, then draining the blood from the umbilical cord and placenta.

The HTA says delayed umbilical cord clamping (not earlier than one minute after birth) is currently recommended by NICE and WHO to allow more blood to reach the baby and help prevent anaemia.

To ensure the best quality collection, those collecting cord blood must be properly trained. Anyone collecting cord blood must act under the authority of an HTA licence.

What’s the difference between private and public blood banking?

While private banks store blood units solely for use by the donor or their family, parents can also opt to donate cord blood to a public stem-cell bank, like the NHS Cord Blood Bank, which are then made available for public use.

There is a lot to consider when thinking about banking your baby's blood. (Getty Images)
There is a lot to consider when thinking about banking your baby's blood. (Getty Images)

But there is still some doubt over the need for private cord blood banking.

"There is still very little evidence to support the need for parents of healthy children to use expensive private cord blood banking,” Dr Alasdair Rankin, director of research, policy and support at the blood cancer charity, Blood Cancer UK, (formerly known as Bloodwise) previously told Yahoo UK.

“Childhood blood cancers are thankfully very rare and the vast majority of children will be successfully treated with chemotherapy.

“Even if a stem cell transplant is required, one cord may not be enough and treatment is likely to be more successful using an unrelated donor.

"We would urge parents to donate cord blood to the NHS cord blood bank in those hospitals where this option is available."

NHS Cord Blood Bank collects, evaluates and stores cord blood units and makes them available for patients in the UK and across the world.

The NHS currently collect cord blood donations at five UK hospitals - University College London Hospital, St George’s Hospital and Luton and Dunstable University Hospital.