From the blood of babes

Earlier this month, the Yukon Medical Association passed a motion calling for the establishment of a national cord-blood bank.

Earlier this month, the Yukon Medical Association passed a motion calling for the establishment of a national cord-blood bank.

What, you might ask, is cord blood?

Here are the gory details:

Cord blood is the blood that remains in the placenta and umbilical cord after childbirth.

Removing the cord blood is not at all harmful to the baby.

Actually, cord blood is normally thrown away as medical waste, but if collected, the blood could be used to save someone’s life.

This unique blood contains stem cells, which can be used to treat leukemia, some cancers and certain immune diseases.

In the future, medical researchers hope to use stem cells to treat other ailments such as Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis.

And cord blood specifically can also be used to treat hematopoietic and genetic disorders.

Yukon doctors aren’t the only ones that have thought about the benefits of saving this stuff.

Canadian Blood Services is currently in the process of setting up a national cord-blood collection program through its OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network.

Normally, if a patient is diagnosed with a disorder that can be treated with stem cells, doctors first look to family members to find a matching donor.

“This only works about 30 per cent of the time,” said Sue Smith, executive director of OneMatch.

“The rest of the time they come to us”

These are not the controversial embryonic stem cells; the blood is contained after a child is born, said Smith.

Canada is one of the few industrialized nations that does not have a cord-blood bank.

But we already make use of it, importing cord blood from the international market.

Canada’s OneMatch is part of a worldwide network of bone marrow donors that includes more than 13.5 million potential stem cell donors.

But even with this many donors, a perfect match is found only about half of the time.

Finding a match has a lot to do with ethnicity and there’s not much diversity in those stem cell banks.

In Canada, 82 per cent of potential stem cell donors are Caucasian, which definitely doesn’t reflect the face of Canada, said Smith.

Collecting cord blood from all newborn Canadians may be a way to rectify this disparity.

And cord blood provides younger and more immature stem cells, which are less finicky and more easily matched.

As with any organ transplant, doctors often have to worry about the body rejecting the bone marrow transplants (known as graft-versus-host disease).

That immature cord blood is a lot less likely to be rejected by the body.

It can even be mixed.

Because very little blood is collected from the umbilical cord (doctors are normally able to collect about 75 ml of the stuff), adult patients are sometimes given a double-dose from two separate infant donors.

A couple of years ago, the Canadian Medical Officer of Health asked Canadian Blood Services to look into creating a national cord blood bank.

After years of consultation and planning, the organization is now working with all 12 jurisdictions to get approval and funding.

Smith was unable to say when the program might be launched.

But once Canada gets a cord-blood program, Yukon infants are unlikely to contribute.

Just like regular blood donation, it may be too costly to have collection in every hospital and jurisdiction.

This might mean no donation for the sparsely populated North.

“But our core principal is that no matter where you live in Canada you will have access,” said Smith.

Contact Chris Oke at chriso@yukon-news.com