Minority ethnic male patient

Cord blood transplants

If you’ve found out that you need a stem cell transplant, one of the options available for some people is a cord blood transplant. On this page we’ll explain what this means, how it works and why you might need one.

What’s on this page?

What is a cord blood transplant?

A cord blood transplant uses stem cells donated from someone else. In this case, the stem cells come from umbilical cord blood. This is something that doctors can collect from newborn babies.

Your medical team might offer you a cord blood transplant as an option if you don’t have a match from:

Stem cells found in cord blood are ‘immature’, which means they can develop to suit your body – they don’t need to be an exact match.

What is a stem cell transplant?

If you haven’t yet read our page on understanding stem cell transplants, we recommend taking a look at the information to help you learn what it involves.

Where does cord blood come from?

You can find cord blood in an umbilical cord. An umbilical cord connects a baby in the womb to the placenta. The placenta and umbilical cord are both rich sources of stem cells.

If someone having a baby agrees to donate the baby’s cord blood, the procedure is safe and simple:

  • The baby and placenta are safely delivered.
  • A doctor or midwife cuts the umbilical cord.
  • An Anthony Nolan cord collector can collect the stem cells.
  • We take the collected stem cells to our cord bank, where we can freeze them until they’re needed.

Who can have a cord blood transplant?

Cord blood could be a suitable stem cell transplant option if you:

  • have a condition that means that you’re not able to make your own healthy blood cells – for example, aplastic anaemia or a genetic condition affecting your blood, bone marrow or immune system
  • have a type of blood cancer that chemotherapy might not cure alone
  • do not have another suitable stem cell donor.

How do you find a cord blood match?

If you need a stem cell transplant and cord blood could be your best option, we’ll test your tissue to see if it matches any of the cords in our bank. We’ll also search a worldwide cord blood bank registry.

When we find a suitable cord match, it’s usually available quickly because it has already been collected and stored. Adults may need two cord blood ‘units’ – in other words, from two different umbilical cords that match your needs.

For more information about our matching process, see our page on finding a donor for your stem cell transplant.

Rayhan and his wife

I saw it as a project. The doctor told me what was going to happen, and it wasn't that I wasn't prepared for the worst, but I decided to do my best. If you can have a focused mind, the other things you endure are easier to manage.

Rayhan received his stem cells from a cord blood donation. You can read his story on our blog.

What will happen before the transplant?

For a cord blood stem cell transplant, you will first have conditioning therapy to prepare your body for the new stem cells. You’re likely to have chemotherapy, sometimes in combination with a type of radiotherapy called total body irradiation (TBI). This also gets rid of any remaining damaged cells if you have them.

Your transplant normally takes place the day after your conditioning therapy has finished.

What will happen during the transplant?

A cord blood transplant involves thawing out the cord blood cells in a water bath. Then they pass as fluid through a thin tube into your bloodstream, a bit like having a blood transfusion.

After your transplant, the stem cells make their way to your bone marrow. They will then start to grow into normal blood cells – this is called engraftment.

The cord blood stem cells you receive form a new immune system that will recognise any remaining cancer cells in your body and attack them. You might hear this called graft versus tumour or graft versus leukaemia (GvL) effect.

Recovering from a cord blood transplant

Engraftment can take longer to happen after a cord blood transplant because umbilical cords have fewer stem cells compared to blood stem cells from an adult donor. This means you might have a slightly longer stay in hospital after your transplant than someone who has had an unrelated or sibling transplant. Sometimes it can take between one to two weeks longer.

You’ll probably be in hospital for about four to six weeks in protective isolation with safety measures to protect you from infection. It usually takes between six months and a year before your level of activity starts to get back to normal.

For more information about how to cope during this time, see our page on staying in protective isolation.

Will I get side effects after a cord blood transplant?

After any type of transplant, many people experience a range of side effects, both short and long term. Most side effects apply to all types of transplants, while others are more specific to certain types.

Information updated: 24/05/2024

Next review due: 24/05/2027