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Umbilical stem cells

Haematopoietic stem-cells 2013.02.07.

Since the beginning of the 1980s, it has been known that the umbilical cord and placenta that are usually discarded after birth contain high quality, young and self-sustaining blood-forming stem cells in quantities suitable for implantation. After being collected and frozen, these are suitable for medical use at a later date. The first successful umbilical stem cell transplant was carried out in 1988. Since then, over 20,000 units of umbilical blood preparations have been used worldwide. In the US in 2009, stem cells from umbilical blood accounted for 30% of all stem cell transplants, and the figure was 50% for patients under the age of 18.

The advantage of umbilical stem cells is that they can be obtained easily, quickly and practically without pain or risk. Being immature, they are classed as immunologically inactive cells, so when used in other people – such as within the family, for example for a sick sibling – they are less prone to attack the recipient organism. Umbilical stem cells are “newborn”, thus a very young type of cell. They have a high capacity for division and can create many cells during their life cycle. In addition, their genome is, in theory, free from environmental damage. Tissue stem cells, though their capacity for division is theoretically limitless, age with us and damage caused to us can also affect the genes in our cells.

Umbilical stem cells stored in deep freeze are available immediately whenever they are needed. This means there is no need for a long search for a donor before a transplant, which could reduce the the patient's chances of recovery. Where there is a suitable genetic match, they can also be suitable for the treatment of the child's relatives (for example, siblings). Umbilical blood banks are for this reason sometimes referred to in the literature as “family banks”. By storing umbilical stem cells, we can also eliminate the need for surgical intervention in the case of a family member who could be a potential donor.