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Cord Blood Saves Lives at Cardinal Glennon 

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 29, 2007 issue of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. For updated statistics about cord blood click here.

The parents of Amelia Gray consider the St. Louis Cord Blood Bank a lifesaver.

Practicing medicine sometimes means sharing difficult news with patients and their families.  For the family of little Amelia Gray, the news was very bad.  The 14-month-old Edwardsville girl had been diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, an aggressive form of leukemia that is more common in adults than children.

Chemotherapy began soon after Amelia’s diagnosis, and for a while things seemed to go well.  When she turned two, however, Amelia’s condition worsened and her leukemia returned. It was then that Amelia’s medical team recommended that she receive a transplant using stem cells taken from umbilical cord blood.

These stem cells are not considered controversial because no embryos are destroyed to obtain them. Instead, cord blood is collected from the umbilical cord after a mother gives birth. If not collected, this life-saving material is simply discarded as a waste product.

Use of cord blood received an important endorsement early this month, as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a statement encouraging parents to donate cord blood.  Additionally, the AAP urged families to use public banks that make products available to anyone who needs them, rather than privately banking a child’s cord blood in case that child ever needs a transplant.

“The chances of a child needing his or her own cord blood stem cells in the future are estimated to range from one in 1,000 to one in 200,000,” The AAP policy statement says. The statement does advise that private cord blood banking is a “good option for parents who have an older child with a condition that could potentially benefit from transplantation, such as a genetic immunodeficiency.”

The St. Louis Cord Blood Bank at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center is the second-largest independent public cord blood bank in the world.  The bank began exporting units worldwide in 1996 and, last fall, shipped its 1,000th unit for transplantation. The bank works with 28 area hospitals and 350 physicians to collect cord blood. More than 14,000 cord blood units are currently being stored at the bank for exportation worldwide.

“The overall survival rate for patients treated with bone marrow transplants is about 35 percent. With cord blood stem cell transplantation, that survival rate jumps to 55 percent,” says Donna Regan, manager of the St. Louis Cord Blood Bank.  “We’re proud to know that cord blood has played a role in saving 550 lives.”

Research is also being conducted using cord blood stem cells to treat spinal cord injuries, regenerate damaged heart tissue and to develop a vaccine for HIV/AIDS. Regan says staff members at the St. Louis Cord Blood bank refer to their work as the “Ultimate Recycling Project.”

Whatever it’s called, the parents of Amelia Gray consider the program a lifesaver. Amelia is now 4 and is two years into remission of her leukemia.

“The people who work at the Cord Blood Bank are so committed to what they do, and we just think that’s wonderful,” Lisa Gray says.  “There’s absolutely no doubt in our minds that they saved our little girl’s life.”

Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a child health question, “Ask Dr. Bob.”

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