As expectant parents, you must be receiving tons of advice. From how to buy diapers in bulk to the best paediatrician in your city to health insurance, there are so many things expectant parents have to think about so they can be prepared for the arrival of their little one.
You might have been told about preserving your baby’s umbilical cord blood due to the many possibilities that the stem cells in it offer. Along with the benefits, you might have also heard about the downside of stem cell banking. Like every other good thing, stem cell therapies do have their downside but the benefits outweigh them. However, it’s always best to understand the full picture before making a decision that you can only make once.
A good place to start would be to understand what umbilical cord blood stem cells are before diving into the good or bad about them.
What’s The Deal With Stem Cells?
Stem cells are immature and young cells that can adopt any function of a specific cell in the body and become mature or specialised cells.1 Regenerative medicine includes treatments that help our natural healing processes work more rapidly and effectively.
Stem cells are “unprogrammed cells” in the human body that can divide continuously and change into other types of cells.2 Umbilical cord blood stem cells can regenerate into bone, muscle, cartilage and other types of specialised cells (like blood), and thus have the yet-to-be-discovered potential to treat disorders like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and diabetes.3 They can be found in different bodily tissues including blood, bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, placental tissue, skin and muscle.2
Stem cells are an approved form of treatment for over 90+ conditions, mainly of the blood and immune system, but there are limitations to what they can and cannot be used to treat.
Theoretically, umbilical cord blood stem cells also have the potential of functionally restoring tissues/organs, repair aged cells in the body thus preventing or delaying organ failure, and producing extended longevity.4 The use of stem cells for various disorders and therapies is still being studied under clinical trials, making them more of an investment in the long run.
Are Stem Cells Good or Bad? What Should I Know About Them?
Lots of expectant parents get advice about banking their baby’s umbilical cord blood, as it is rich in stem cells. However, it is only normal that you have queries and are filled with doubts about whether it is safe, useful or even a good idea.
Most of these doubts are a result of myths propagated based on unreliable information. On top of that, most expecting parents are poorly informed about the benefits of cord blood banking.5 The best way to steer clear of dubious information is to arm yourself with research-backed facts. So let’s dive into some common misconceptions about umbilical cord blood stem cells and understand the full story behind them.
Myth 1: Stem Cell Collection Is Not Safe
Stem cells are mainly collected from blood or bone marrow in the case of adult donors, or the umbilical cord blood right after birth.6 The collection of umbilical cord blood is entirely safe and painless for both the mother and the baby as it is conducted after birth.7 Umbilical cord blood is the main source of stem cells for most of the approved stem cell treatments. Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, are collected from embryos that are created in laboratory settings, not from embryos inside the maternal body.8
Myth 2: Stem Cell Banking is Illegal
This is partially true but that doesn’t mean you can’t bank your baby’s stem cells. In India, the ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) banned the banking of stem cells in 2017, except the collection and preservation of umbilical cord blood stem cells.9 So as parents, you still have the right to decide if you want to preserve or donate your baby’s umbilical cord blood after birth. However, this decision cannot be made at the last minute.
Myth 3: Stem Cell Therapy is Unsafe
The main risk associated with any kind of transplantation is the risk of rejection of cells by the recipient’s body. Stem cells have an added advantage over other kinds of transplants, since they are more immature cells, making them adapt more easily and reducing their chances of rejection.
Umbilical cord blood stem cells are believed to be safer than stem cells from other sources for this reason. As these cells are still immature, they are less likely to cause rejection or graft-versus-host disease. With cord blood, a partial human leukocyte antigen (HLA) match (a kind of tissue matching) of just 6/8 or 7/ 8 parameters can also work.10 Whereas in case of a bone marrow transplant, you would need an HLA match of 10 out of 10 parameters.11 This is one of the reasons why cord blood banking is recommended to expectant parents.
Myth 4: Stem Cells Are A Cure-All
While banking your baby’s stem cells, understand that they are not a cure for every ailment. There is a lot of ongoing research on stem cells, and stem cell transplant treatments have been observed to be safe, effective and approved. Umbilical cord blood stem cells have the potential to treat degenerative diseases that were long thought to be “untreatable”.12 Stem cells are great as an extra assurance for the future of your family’s health and may come in handy when trying to find a matching donor in case of a medical emergency.
Now that you have an idea of the kind of myths surrounding umbilical cord blood stem cells and the real story behind them, making your decision might become easier. It is also important to note that there is always a chance of not using these stem cells at all. However, in case of certain unexpected illnesses, preserving stem cells proves to be extremely beneficial. Take your doctor’s help in evaluating your family’s medical history and risks against the benefits of stem cell banking for the same - better safe than sorry. Remember that there’s always the option to donate these valuable cells to a patient who is very much in need of them.