How well do you know your body? Most of us are often caught unawares when this question is posed. Because let’s admit, not many of us are aware of all the wonders that nature has imbibed in the human body. From the well-timed heartbeat, the way each organ functions in perfect harmony with the other, to the immaculately sequenced double-helix structure of the DNA, everything about the human body structure is wondrous. One such wonder is the tiny cells with the ability to regenerate themselves into something totally new - stem cells. These stem cells are found in abundance in adult bone marrow, peripheral blood, as well as umbilical cord blood. Today, we’re going to discuss more on umbilical cord blood stem cells, their advantages and disadvantages.

The umbilical cord is a tube that connects an unborn baby inside the womb to the mother. It delivers oxygen and nutrients to the baby and helps in removing the baby’s waste products. The umbilical cord and placenta are often discarded as medical waste soon after childbirth. However, the blood within the umbilical cord, popularly called cord blood, is rich in hematopoietic stem cells, which are blood-producing cells.

In order to reap the benefits of the umbilical cord blood stem cells, these blood cells are harvested from the cord after it is cut following the delivery of the baby. This simple collection process is safe and does not harm the baby or the mother.

Hematopoietic (blood-producing) stem cells maintain the blood supply to the body throughout our lifetime. They can generate every type of blood cell - red blood corpuscles, white blood corpuscles, and platelets.

Also called master cells, they are ‘unspecialized cells’ or immature cells, which means that they have the capability to further develop into any specialized, mature blood cells to treat the disease that a person has been suffering from. For instance, if a patient suffers from a deficiency of white blood cells as a result of a particular disease, then these stem cells develop into white blood cells as per the required treatment plan. Similarly, they can also develop into red blood cells or even platelets.

This ability of stem cells to regenerate or regrow into new tissues and blood cells has an immense life-saving potential to treat various diseases including genetic disorders, immune deficiencies, and different cancers.

Umbilical cord stem cells are used to treat around 80+ disease conditions. However, they are only approved for treatment procedures that require hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. This means that it can be used only in conditions that affect the blood system and require a transplantation for regrowth and regeneration of blood cells. Although cord blood stem cells offer many advantages, they also come with a few disadvantages that we need to be aware of.

Advantages Of Umbilical Cord Blood Stem Cells

  1. Have the ability to renew and regrow into specialized cells
  2. Can repair or replace damaged/diseased cells
  3. Easily harvested
  4. The harvest process does not harm the baby or mother
  5. Readily available
  6. Immense potential to treat life-threatening diseases
  7. High chances of finding closely-matched donor-recipient stem cells for transplantation
  8. Less chance of transplant rejection
  9. Absence of risk to the donor
  10. Low likelihood of transmission of clinically important infections during transplantations
  11. Low risk of graft-versus-host disease

Disadvantages Of Umbilical Cord Blood Stem Cells

  1. Treatment approval for limited diseases
  2. One collection set is insufficient to treat one adult
  3. Once transplanted, no more cells can be harvested from the same source
  4. Compared to bone marrow stem cells, cord blood stem cells require more time to graft
  5. Cord blood is collected and harvested only by privatized organizations limiting access only to members

While umbilical cord blood stem cells may have treatment approval only in one particular area of disease (blood system), it needs to be noted that scientists continue to explore more treatment possibilities with cord blood stem cells. As of now, they are used as experimental treatments for diseases such as type I diabetes and cerebral palsy.

Umbilical cord blood stem cells offer immense life-saving potential. What has been achieved so far with them is only the tip of the iceberg. With continuous research already underway, things only seem to get better in the field of regenerative medicine and healthcare as the use of stem cells is all set to broaden the horizon.