Local cord blood bank helps save lives nationwide

Alongside LifeSouth cellular therapy manager Amy Lambert, right, cellular therapy specialist Teale Obana points to a small sample of cord blood that will be shipped.

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Published: Saturday, February 16, 2013 at 5:12 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 16, 2013 at 5:12 p.m.

Donations in the medical world — at least for organs — are often associated with end-of-life scenarios, but some of us become donors when we enter the world — giving something that can only be given at our birth.

Cord blood, the blood in babies’ umbilical cord, is extracted during the narrow window of time between the delivery of the baby and the placenta.

“Cord blood is fantastic because it comes from something that is otherwise not going to be used for anything else,” said Amy Lambert, the cellular therapy manager at LifeSouth Community Blood Centers in Gainesville.

LifeSouth runs a non-profit public cord blood banking program called LifeCord, the first in the Southeast when it opened in 1998. LifeCord just supplied its 107th unit of cord blood, on the heels of the announcement, by the worldwide network for blood and marrow transplantation, of the world’s one millionth blood stem cell transplant, including those done with cord blood.

“Twenty years ago, umbilical cord blood was considered medical waste. Now, every day somewhere in the world, cord blood is saving lives,” Lambert said.

According to Dr. Willis Navarro, vice president and medical director for Transplant Medical Services of the National Marrow Donor Program based in Minneapolis, infants’ cord blood is rich in stem cells that can regenerate in patients with various conditions, including blood cancers such as leukemia and myeloma, immunodeficiency syndromes and inborn metabolic disorders.

Cord blood donations are small — about two tablespoons in volume — Navarro said, so oftentimes two donations are used together in a transplant for one adult. Children can get one donation.

There is also a greater potential range of recipients for cord blood, Navarro said. “An infant’s immune system is less developed and more tolerant of a mismatch.”

This makes cord blood especially promising for ethnic minorities, for whom donors are often more difficult to find, Navarro added. In other words, the genetic markers between the donor and recipient blood don’t have to be a perfect fit for the donated blood to work.

Cord blood, however, still constitutes a small percentage of stem cell transplant material. The world currently has about a half million cord blood units in storage for donation, compared with 20.5 million potential transplant donors worldwide.

In 2012, nearly 21,000 mothers in the U.S. donated their babies’ cord blood — not a very high percentage of the total births (which were just under 4 million), but as Navarro pointed out, this reflects the fact that most hospitals do not have the infrastructure for donations.

LifeCord in Gainesville collects cord blood from eight hospitals throughout Florida — including Shands at the University of Florida — as well as hospitals in Georgia and Alabama.

Once LifeCord receives the donation, Lambert and her colleagues must assess it for clots and other abnormalities. If the blood passes, “All of the good stem cells are condensed into one little bag ... then preserved in liquid nitrogen,” Lambert said, adding that they still have donations from when they started accepting cord blood donations in 1998.

“(Cord blood) can sit indefinitely,” she said.

Once a transplant surgeon has identified a potential donor match, the cord blood sample is screened again, and, if selected, sent off in a mushroom-shaped refrigerator they call the “R2-D2,” as in the “Star Wars” robot.

“It’s a fantastic feeling every time I send out a unit,” Lambert said.

“This is ... hope that this person is going to receive, and all because a mother signed a piece of paper.”

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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