A new report by an independent panel of U.S. scientists is calling for a national banking system for the collection and distribution of umbilical cord blood for its life-saving stem cells.
The report released Thursday by the independent Institute of Medicine calls on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to create the National Cord Blood Policy Board to set in motion a system for the donation, storage and distribution of umbilical cord blood donated by the public.
The study further recommends that the Health and Human Services Department find an organization that can oversee the day-to-day operations of a national cord blood banking system.
Kristine Gebby is director of Nursing Science at Columbia University in New York and chairman of the Institute of Medicine report recommending a national system to store cord blood.
"It appears to be a very good source and one with fewer complications of rejection, probably because of some of the other cells that circulate in umbilical cord blood," she said. "And so there's a great interest increasing it and understanding how to use it, but without a coordinated system, it's not happening as it should."
Blood from umbilical cords, a byproduct of birth, is a rich source of hematopoietic progenitor cells, the type of stem cell that is also found in bone marrow. Transplants of the stem cells can be used to cure a variety of blood diseases such as leukemia and sickle cell anemia.
Women who donate umbilical cord blood must do so when giving birth, usually a chaotic time. Experts say standardization in the collection and storage of cord blood would ensure that this valuable resource doesn't go to waste.
An estimated 20,000 Americans with blood diseases have been cured in recent years with stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood. Experts say it seems to offer a more effective form of therapy than stem cells derived from bone marrow.
But Dr. Gebby says the shortage of cord blood means thousands of transplant patients die ever year waiting for compatible bone marrow through a public registry.
"And so having cord blood available as an alternate source where match is easier to come by, and where you can get the product within 24 hours of knowing that it's match, does seem to be a very good alternative," she said.
The Institute of Medicine report doesn't recommend creating any new banks, but it is calling for an increase in the national supply of high-quality cord blood by 100,000 units. Currently, there are 50,000 units.
But many units go unused.
The problem is compatibility, which experts say is determined by six surface proteins, or HLA markers, on each cell. The more closely the markers on the donor's cells match those of the recipient, the less likely it is that the patient's body will reject the transplant.
Dr. Gebby says transplant recipients, especially African and Asian minorities, are much more likely to find a compatible donor if the supply of cord blood is tripled.
"That means not just any 100,000 more units, but some attention to getting a good mix of the various racial and ethnic groups in the country, because the HLA type varies in the population depending upon your racial or ethnic history," she said. "So, having a good mix in the bank increases the likelihood of having a good match."
The study by the Institute of Medicine was commissioned by Congress, which appropriated $10 million for establishment of a National Cord Blood Stem Cell Bank Program.