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In their first moments after birth, babies across Illinois are making a donation that could save the life of another child or adult. A new law that took effect in 1/04 makes Illinois the first state to routinely ask pregnant women if they would like to donate the blood from their baby’s umbilical cord for the valuable stem cells it contains.

Before, the umbilical-cord blood was thrown away as medical waste…

For an easy-to-understand explanation of stem cells, click here.

Scientists can use the cord blood to make many different types of cells in the body — to carry oxygen, fight disease and help stop bleeding.
Women who deliver babies at the Trinity Birth Center or Illini Birth Center are being asked, toward the end of their pregnancy, to consider making the donation. They are asked before their 35th week to make a decision about whether they want to donate, and are then sent a kit to take with them to the hospital.

“That’s been a state directive,”said Candy Talley, nurse manager/ maternal-child at Illini. “All the hospitals that deliver babies in the state of Illinois should be doing that.”

Non-embryonic Stem Cells, such as the umbilical cord blood stem cells, can be used to treat a wide range of diseases, including leukemias, lymphomas, immune-system disorders and inherited metabolic diseases.

State Rep. David R. Leitch, R-Peoria, heard a presentation about the benefits of non-embryonic stem cells and worked to make Illinois the first state to ask women if they want to donate.

Most of the Illinois donations go to Cryobank International, a Florida cord bank that gets about 40 donations a day, seven days a week. Hospital staffers have to move quickly; the donation has to reach Florida within 24 hours. Donations have to be at least 2 ounces, preferably up to 6 ounces.

After the donation is sent to Cryobank, it is processed, which takes more than 3 hours, said Dwight Brunoehler, president and founder. The blood also is tested for bacteria and disease.

“Stem cells are the cells that make all the other cells in your body,” he said. “You are born with them, but if at any time you lose them, you are going to die very quickly.”

Stem cells can be wiped out through chemotherapy in lymphoma patients or through other genetic diseases. Patients then typically get a bone-marrow transplant. But the odds of finding an exact match is one in 20,000 for a Caucasian, and one in several hundred thousand for other ethnicities, Rep. Leitch said.

Stem cells from cord blood are easier to match because the cells are “naive,” Mr. Brunoehler said. They don’t form completely until the baby is six weeks old. Since the cells are taken before that time, they can adapt to match a different person.

Last year 3,500 stem-cell transplants were done in the United States, Mr. Brunoehler said. So far, six children in the United States have been treated for sickle-cell anemia and cured with stem-cell transplants.

Most donated stem cells are being used for research. Cryobank is working on a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”). Spinal-cord repair also is being researched.

The lab doesn’t do any controversial or cosmetic research, officials say.
Of more than 100 transplant centers in the country, less than half do stem-cell transplants. The others only do bone-marrow transplants. But once the procedure for stem-cell transplants is mainstreamed, Mr. Brunoehler said, more of the donations will be used for transplants instead of research.

In the first half of the year, more than 1,500 units were donated in Illinois. The federal government wants to build up an inventory of more than 200,000 units across the country, to be used for both transplants and research.

Diverse groups of women are being targeted for donations because each ethnicity has genetic diseases specific to that heritage.

Stem-cell transplants, although expensive at $16,000 for a unit, are much cheaper than bone-marrow transplants, which cost about $30,000. Rep. Leitch said a study showed that if Illinois had used stem cells for all transplants over a four-year period, the state would have saved $11.5 million in Medicaid costs.

The best thing about the bill, Rep. Leitch said, is that it has opened up communication on the use of stem cells. He hopes the conversation will continue and more states will adopt similar programs.
[Quad-Cities Online, div of The Dispatch; posted online 10Oct04; print publication 11 Oct04; Amy Thon (309) 786-6441, ext. 208. Posted online: 10Oct04,  Print publication date: 11Oct04, Amy Thon, [email protected] ]