Since embryonic stem cells were first discovered more than 20 years ago, they have revolutionized the fields of both medicine and biology. Unlike most cells in our bodies, which are only able to create identical types of cells through replication, stem cells are undifferentiated cells that are able to develop into a wide variety of different kinds of tissues. By studying stem cells, researchers have been able to learn key facts about the ways in which the different kinds of tissues in the body maintain and repair themselves. This knowledge has led to breathtaking medical discoveries that hold out the promise of hope for many people who previously had none.
Researchers have already accomplished amazing feats using the embryonic stem cell’s ability to replicate itself flawlessly without any apparent limit. In Japan, scientists recently used stem cells from mice to “grow” units of teeth that included both bone and connective fibers. The implications for organ transplants are stupendous, but stem cells are believed to be useful for far more than merely re-growing key organs and tissues.
Because many serious medical conditions involve cells dividing and replicating themselves in an abnormal manner, stem cells may become an integral part of a cure; the application of stem cell therapies may help cells in the body re-acquire the ability to replicate themselves normally. The results may well be cures or effective treatments for conditions as diverse as cancer, birth defects, spinal cord injuries, and burns. Indeed, current research suggests that embryonic stem cells can potentially be used to replace damaged or diseased cells in almost any kind of body tissue or organ.
The importance of umbilical cord blood
The use of embryonic stem cells in research is not without controversy. One way to obtain these valuable cells is to extract them from human embryos, a process that causes the death of the embryos involved. This gives rise to ethical concerns about when life begins and has caused some people to object to the use of stem cells on principle.
There is, however, a promising solution to the ethical questions raised by the use of embryonic stem cells. These same cells, it turns out, are also present in umbilical cord blood. Because this blood can be obtained without causing harm to embryos, it bypasses the entire question of when life begins and whether embryos should be accorded the full rights of human beings.
This is important on two levels. Individuals who benefit from umbilical cord stem cell research need have no qualms about accepting medical intervention when the therapies involved have been developed based on stem cells from umbilical cord blood rather than human embryos. Perhaps more importantly, the availability of umbilical cord blood for research and treatment could potentially cause lawmakers – and those who make funding decisions – to regard stem cell procedures in a more positive light.
How to donate umbilical cord blood
Donating umbilical cord blood is not difficult, but neither is it a decision that can be undertaken at the last moment. Those who wish to contribute cord blood to this vital research effort should discuss the matter with their prenatal care providers about two months prior to delivery. It will be necessary to answer some basic health questions to determine if the patient qualifies.
Expectant mothers who qualify to donate should verify that their hospital works with a public cord blood bank. If this is the case, patients should get in touch with the bank in question to continue the pre-donation process. Those who find that their hospital is not experienced with donations should contact a cord blood bank themselves to inquire about a kit for cord blood collection.
The actual donation process takes place a few minutes after labor and delivery have been completed and involves little more than clamping the umbilical cord and draining the blood from it into a sterile bag. Those who donate should be sure to keep their paperwork in case they need to get in touch with the cord blood bank at a future date.
The gift of hope
Donating umbilical cord blood provides a way to contribute to ongoing medical research that may potentially transform the world in which we live. In years to come, the cures and therapies that result from these donations may make a positive impact on the lives of thousands or even millions of individuals. Expectant mothers should take the time to consider the issue and make their own decision about whether they wish to make a donation.