Page last updated at 00:02 GMT, Thursday, 11 September 2008 01:02 UK

Cord blood bank 'will save lives'

By Martin Hutchinson

Eva Winston-Hart, who was saved by a cord blood donation and baby Darcey Judge, whose cord blood was donated to the bank.
Eva was saved by a donation of cord blood like that donated by baby Darcey

A scheme to store blood taken from the umbilical cords of newborns and use it to save lives has been launched.

Cord blood, like bone marrow, can help patients survive deadly diseases such as leukaemia.

For now, the Anthony Nolan Trust Cord Blood Bank can take cord blood at just one hospital, with plans for more UK collection centres.

Even so, the charity predicted the 50,000 expected donations over the next five years would prevent many deaths.

Cord blood provides a way to give a patient the ability to produce new blood cells after this has been lost through illness or aggressive treatment.

As well as patients with blood cancers, those with sickle cell disease and immune problems could benefit.

The thing about cord blood is that it's just thrown away - but it could save someone's life
Mark Behan
parent of cord blood patient

It contains potent "stem cells", which, if placed back into the bone marrow, can start producing the right sort of cells.

The umbilical cord is normally thrown away after birth, so, unlike bone marrow donation, there is no discomfort or risk to the donor.

The NHS already has a cord blood bank, which takes donations from women donating at two north London, and two Hertfordshire hospitals, collecting approximately 5,000 samples a year.

There are also several private facilities in the UK.

But the Nottingham-based centre is the first NHS facility to combine storage of potential cord blood transplants with a research institute aiming to develop new techniques to use them.

Anthony Nolan Trust chief executive Dr Steve McEwen said: "The beauty of this programme will not only be to save the lives of hundreds more patients but also provide researchers the opportunity to develop innovative new treatments."

A total of 50,000 donations are expected by 2013, of which 20,000 will be suitable for transplantation, with the remainder being used in cord blood research.

Small salvation

Four-year-old Eva Winston-Hart is living proof that cord banking works - she was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of leukaemia in 2006, and none of her family could provide matching bone marrow.

Mothers who have donated blood to the new bank
Mothers who have donated cord blood to the new bank

Eventually, cord blood was found in the US, and treatment was successful.

Her mother, Amy, from Market Harborough in Leicestershire, said: "She wouldn't be here if it wasn't for cord blood. In the end, just a few millilitres was enough to save her."

Another to benefit was 11-year-old Caitlin Behan, from Northamptonshire, who received a transplant four years ago.

Her father, Mark, said: "She's the only girl of her age who wants to grow up to be a haematologist.

"The thing about cord blood is that it's just thrown away - but it could save someone's life."

The first Anthony Nolan Trust collection centre is at King's College Hospital, and only mothers who give birth there can donate.

Ante-natal class

Some have already done so - Justine Clark gave her permission for the cord to be taken after the birth of her daughter Isabell 12 weeks ago.

The beauty of this programme will not only be to save the lives of hundreds more patients but also provide researchers the opportunity to develop innovative new treatments
Dr Steve McEwen
Chief Executive, Anthony Nolan Trust

She said she was motivated by watching a close friend die of aplastic anaemia some years ago.

"I have always thought that if there was anything I could do to help people survive, then I would do it.

"This is easier than giving blood - it's a no-brainer, really."

She was approached about the idea at ante-natal classes, and despite initially opting for a home birth, managed to arrange the donation after arriving at King's College Hospital after complications during labour.

"Normally, all you'd have to do is phone or text the nurse to tell her you're coming in, and it will all be taken care of."

Doctors are also hailing the new centre - Professor Ghulam Mufti, a consultant haematologist at the hospital, described it as part of an "exciting and rapidly-moving" part of medicine.

"Today, we can offer many more adults real hope, thanks to combining cells from two or more different donors, which was simply not possible just four years ago."

The Anthony Nolan Trust expanded into cord blood five years ago, until now sourcing donations from cord blood banks overseas. Last year it imported 70 cords for UK patients.

  • Inside Out reports on cord blood transplants at 1930BST on Wednesday 17 September on BBC 1 in the London region (also nationally on Satellite channel 974).

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    Q&A: cord blood banking
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