When a baby is born, its umbilical cord and placenta (afterbirth) are usually thrown away as clinical waste. But this ‘waste’ could actually save someone’s life.
The blood in the cord and placenta is rich in stem cells. These stem cells can be used for lifesaving transplants for patients suffering from leukaemia and other serious blood disorders.
Stem cell transplants from cord blood are a great alternative to those from adult donors. But the UK does not currently collect and store enough cord blood suitable for use in transplants. It’s far less than other countries and nowhere near enough to meet the number of people who desperately need stem cell transplants. At present, two people miss out on the chance of a transplant every day.
We’ve harnessed this lifesaving method by establishing our own Cord Blood programme. We collect cord blood from consenting mothers in an expanding group of NHS maternity hospitals working with us. Our goal is bank 15,000 cord units by 2014.
Once we’ve collected the cord blood units, they are transported to our Cell Therapy Centre at Nottingham Trent University. We then determine whether we can use them in clinical transplants. If we can, they are ‘banked’. This makes them available for transplant centres urgently looking for a match for a patient who needs a stem cell transplant.
If the cord blood unit doesn’t have enough stem cells to be used for a transplant, we use it for our research programmes. Our research strives to improve the success of transplants in fighting leukaemia and serious blood disorders. We’re also establishing research programmes with partners to explore how cord blood stem cells might help treat a wide range of degenerative conditions such as heart disease, spinal injuries, stroke and multiple sclerosis.
In the last year, we imported over 80% of the cord blood units used by UK transplant centres from cord banks overseas. We’ve imported nearly 300 cord blood units for UK patients over the last four years and 90 in the last year alone. But, if we are to save more lives, we must create a larger, more efficient system of collecting cords within the UK, working alongside the NHS, to provide a more reliable and affordable service to UK transplant centres and their patients.
In the UK alone last year, 65,000 litres of cord blood were discarded. Considering that 80% of transplant requests would be met if the UK saved just 50,000 cord blood units, it’s of utmost importance that we tackle the waste of this lifesaving resource. It would especially help ethnic minorities and people with rare tissue types, as it’s harder to find a match through adult donors.
On average, every year 1 in 100 cord units collected will be used for transplantation compared to 1 in 1000 registered adult donors. The UK needs to be level with Spain, France, Germany, Italy, the USA and others where there are government supported national collection programmes. Working with other partners, we aim to expand the UK inventory to 50,000 cords by 2014.
Find out more about donating cord blood
Find out more about our research programmes involving cord blood