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Monday, 25 October, 1999, 12:59 GMT 13:59 UK
Banking on umbilical blood
Cells from the umbilical cord can help save lives
Three quarters of people who need a bone marrow transplant fail to get one because they cannot find a tissue match. It means patients with diseases like leukaemia are dying sometimes unnecessarily. Now in an extraordinary scientific development, new-born babies are offering a solution. BBC health correspondent Karen Allen reports.

The umbilical cord, once routinely thrown away by doctors after birth, is now being used to offer hope to patients who in the past may have died before they could undergo a transplant.

Tissue from the cord of new born babies is being recycled by doctors to help patients who need a bone marrow transplant, but who cannot find a match.

Immature cells from the blood of an umbilical cord, known as stem cells, can be used to stimulate bone marrow growth when transplanted into hosts. The treatment has proved particularly successful for leukaemia patients.

Leukaemia sufferers desperately need new bone marrow to manufacture healthy blood cells because cancer treatment can destroy normal blood cells as well as those that are malignant.

The technique has been perfected at the Duke University Medical Center, North Carolina, where 80% of toddlers who have been treated have survived.

Progress in adults has been slower because they need a higher yield of cells.

However, by multiplying the stem cells in the laboratory prior to transplanting them into adults, doctors have been able to save the lives of older patients too.

It is thought that the technique could now be adapted to treat patients with genetic diseases such as sickle cell anaemia.

Blood banks

Doctors are attempting to build up stocks of cord blood for public use. However, some families are also opting to bank supplies of cord blood privately as a form of health insurance if it is needed in future.

Deborah Madden opted to freeze the blood of her baby Luke because her older son suffered from leukaemia.

Mrs Madden said: "It is a resource that if my children don't need, that possibly my grandchildren or great-grandchildren might need, and it is important to have."

Doctors are worried that private banking of cord blood could lead to ethical difficulties in future.

Dr Jeremy Sugarman, a medical ethicist at Duke University, said: "If it turns out that you don't need that cord blood, and then someone else does, how would the parents, or families, or even the now-adult person whose own cord blood it was respond? Would they give it away, or would they try to recoup the cost?"

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