In an effort to battle debilitating illnesses such as sickle cell anemia, Mercy Medical Center announced Monday the state's first public program allowing parents to donate and bank the stem cells from their newborns' umbilical cords.
The stem cells are important because they are the same type as those found in bone marrow and can be used in transplants and to treat 90 deadly diseases that affect thousands of Americans each year, including certain types of cancers and blood disorders.
Yet few people donate to cord blood banks now. Many people don't know they can donate; others may balk at the thousands of dollars in fees for private programs. There are only about 20 free public banks around the country, according to the National Marrow Donor Program, a nonprofit registry for bone marrow and cord blood patients and donors.
"This a big step for cord blood donations," said Frances Verter, founder and director of the Parent's Guide to Cord Blood Banking. "So many people will be helped by this. This will help treat more people with life-threatening illnesses."
The Catholic hospital in Baltimore — which opposes embryonic stem cell research but not the use of umbilical cord or adult stem cells — said about 10 mothers have donated umbilical cords to the free program since giving birth.
"We will literally be able to save lives with this program," said Thomas R. Mullen, Mercy president and CEO.
St. Agnes Hospital in Southwest Baltimore is also close to starting a public cord blood program. The Maryland Catholic Conference, which lobbied and coordinated the creation of the bank at Mercy, would like to open banks in all six Catholic hospitals in the area, but needs to find other partners to operate them.
More than 4,000 stem cell transplants have been done using cord blood through the National Marrow Donor Program. In 2009, more than 1,000 transplants were done.
But there is a shortage of cord blood donations. Each year about 10,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with a disease that could be treated with a cord blood transplant or a marrow transplant. A patient has a 30 percent chance of finding a donor match.
The General Assembly passed legislation in 2006 requiring hospitals to inform mothers about the option to save blood cord.
Until now, it came at a cost.
Some parents have for years used private banks where they pay a fee of $1,000 to $2,000 to have stem cells from the cord processed for later use. There is usually an annual storage fee of about $125 as well. The private programs give participants the right to direct how the stem cells are used, whether to treat a family member or themselves.
Public banks are expensive and logistically complicated to run. Nonprofits that run the banks rely largely on grants and private donations. They also charge about $28,000 when the cord stem cells are used for a transplant — a cost that is usually paid fully or partially by the patient's insurance like any other medical procedure.
Patients who donate to public programs give up their rights to the stem cells, which go into the general bank. If they were to ever need a transplant, they wouldn't know whose stem cells they would be receiving.
The closest public bank to Maryland is in Delaware. Mercy and St. Agnes are partnering with the nonprofit Community Blood Services of New Jersey, which operates several public banks throughout the country, including two in Delaware. The group will process the cord blood that the hospitals collect.
Community Blood Services had enough funds to take on only two Maryland hospitals at this time.
A public cord bank operated by the American Red Cross at a Silver Spring hospital closed in 2001.
Once women donate the umbilical cords at Mercy, the blood is drawn using a needle stuck in the main vein. The blood is stored in a bag, much like when a person donates blood. The stem cells are then extracted from the blood and tested to see if they are suitable for a transfusion.
The stem cells ready for transfusion will be entered into the National Marrow Donor Program for use for transplants in patients around the country. Stem cells not eligible for transplants will be used for research.
Mercy officials are hoping to increase the number of African-American donors through the program, a population where it is harder to find a stem cell match. For instance, stem cells can be used to treat sickle cell anemia, a debilitating disease prevalent in the African-American population. About 80 percent of the births at Mercy are from African-American mothers.
"African-Americans have lower blood counts in cord blood, so it's more difficult to get a match," said Dennis Todd, president and CEO of Community Blood Services. "We need to get more people donating to increase the odds of finding that match."
About 97 percent of cord blood, a byproduct of delivering a baby, is currently discarded. Its use does not generate controversy, unlike the stem cells taken from embryos.
"There is a misconception out there that the Catholic Church is opposed to stem cell research, and that is wrong," said Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O'Brien. "The church has long supported cord stem cell research as opposed to embryonic cell research, which destroys lives but has yet to cure a single disease."
As part of Monday's announcement, Community Blood Services introduced the Shaffer family of Philadelphia who said their son was saved by donated cord blood. Mason Shaffer was diagnosed with malignant infantile osteopetrosis, which gave him abnormal bones, last year when he was just five months old.
The family knew about private blood cord banks, but said they couldn't afford to use them. They said they would have donated to a private bank and now advocate for more public banks.
"As you can see the public bank saved our son and changed our lives forever," said Sarah Schaffer, Mason's mom, as the now 19-month-old babbled away in her arms. "As you can see he recovered very happily."