Long before they can walk, talk, sit or stand, babies have the ability to give a gift that could save a life.
That lifesaving potential comes from umbilical cord blood. It’s filled with valuable stem cells that can be used to treat or cure more than 80 different diseases and disorders – but too often umbilical cords are thrown away as medical waste.
“This blood is going into the trash can after delivery. This blood carries with it the ability to save a life,” says Dr. Donna Wall, section head of blood and marrow transplant and cellular therapy at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.
Alysha Dykstra was only four years old when she started battling a rare form of leukemia.
“She would wake up with just excruciating pain in her legs,” her mother Karen Dykstra told Global News.
Alysha went through multiple rounds of chemotherapy, 43 blood transfusions, radiation and surgery. She desperately needed a stem cell transplant but couldn’t find a matching bone marrow donor.
Finding a match isn’t easy. Even among siblings, the chances are only one in four, according to Wall.
“Once you get outside [family members], the chance of finding someone who has… a full 10-point fingerprint match is actually quite rare,”Wall said.
Case in point – Alysha’s sister was not a match. That’s when the Dykstras started an exhaustive search, which eventually led them to cord blood, which came from a public bank.
One small bag of cord blood and a 20-minute transplant was all Alysha needed.
“We sat there in silence just knowing that this was going to work or not work, hoping it will be the lifesaving stem cells that Alysha needed,” her mother told Global News.
WATCH: Dr. Donna Wall, section head of blood and marrow transplant and cellular therapy at the Hospital for Sick Children, explains how a baby can give his or her first gift to society seconds after birth.
The stem cells took weeks to settle in and start working, but Dykstra said her daughter quickly began to get better.
Now 13 years old, Alysha has been cancer-free for eight years.
“I do believe cord blood saved my life,” Alysha said.
With cord blood, you don’t need a perfect match and the cells have the ability to adapt and change.
“It’s amazing that I can put those young blood-making cells into the vein,” Wall said. “Just straight into a vein. They know how to get home. They know how to set up shop inside the bones and give you lifelong blood-making and a brand new immune system.”
The cord blood Alysha received came from a public bank. In Canada’s public banks, it’s free to donate and anyone who needs it can access the lifesaving cells. As well, the banks are part of a worldwide registry.
Jane Virro and her husband, Dr. Michael Virro, an expert in the field of infertility, were running a private cord blood bank when they felt they needed to make cord blood accessible to more people in need.
They started public cord blood bank Victoria Angel Registry of Hope in 2011. Now with 33 sites across Ontario, it’s the only public bank in the world that operates as a charity without any government funding.
“There’s thousands of people around the world every year that need [cord blood], and we’re throwing it away,” Virro, executive director of Victoria Angel, told Global News.
“We do it to make a difference in a family’s life and to save somebody that’s going through the worst time of their lives.”
WATCH: Jane Virro, Victoria Angel Registry of Hope executive director, shares why she, her husband and team have been committed for years to public cord blood banking.
Stem cells in cord blood are more flexible and adaptable, meaning that, unlike in the case of bone marrow transplants, donors don’t have to be 100 per cent matches.
READ MORE: Moms encouraged to donate cord blood
Cord blood donations are especially important in a multicultural population like Canada’s.
Only about 25 per cent of patients are able to find a match within their family, according to Dr. Heidi Elmoazzem, director of cord blood banking and stem cell manufacturing at Canadian Blood Services.
This leaves most people reliant on unrelated donors. Patients with mixed ethnicity have more difficulty finding a bone marrow match – so cord blood can be a lifesaver.
“Building a cord blood bank that’s actually reflective of the unique ethnic diversity that we see here in Canada is quite important,” Elmoazzem said.
WATCH: Dr. Heidi Elmoazzem, Canadian Blood Services public cord blood bank director, explains what cord blood is and the process of finding of a donor.
In 2013, Canadian Blood Services opened its Cord Blood Bank. Since then it has expanded and more than 14,000 donations have been collected from five hospitals – three in Ontario, one in Edmonton and one in Vancouver.
“We’ve had over 14,000 moms donate their baby’s cord blood to the bank so far. And we’re listing our cord blood units on our national and international registries, and we’ve already shipped out units for transplant,” Elmoazzem told Global News.
Quebec also has a public cord blood bank, which was launched by Héma-Québec in 2004.
With collection sites becoming more accessible, Virro is urging expecting parents to consider donating their baby’s cord blood.
“At the happiest time of your life – the birth of a healthy child – you can help somebody at their darkest hour when they have a loved one who’s struggling and on death’s door, and you can make a huge difference,” she said.
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