Karen Garloch

Duke physician helped organize cord blood banks

Storage of umbilical cord blood has become popular among new parents hoping to set aside a potential treatment for their child or other relatives. But the most likely source of cord blood transplants is public banks, which collect donations for free and for anyone, not the private ones that store blood only for use by families who pay.

This competition may be easing with the recent creation of the Cord Blood Association, the first joint effort by public and private banks to raise awareness of the need for cord blood donations worldwide.

One of the 13 new board members is Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg, director of Carolinas Cord Blood Bank at Duke University Medical Center, a public bank that provides cord blood for transplants between unrelated people.

In 1993, Kurtzberg performed the first “unrelated” cord-blood transplant in the world. To date, more than 25,000 patients worldwide have received transplants from public banks.

Cord blood is used to treat more than 80 chronic or life-threatening diseases, including leukemia and lymphoma. One benefit of cord blood is that it doesn’t have to be as closely matched as a bone marrow donation. For some diseases, a patient’s own cells can be used for transplant.

But Kurtzberg said many parents don’t understand that a child’s own cord blood can’t be used to treat leukemia or a genetic disease because there’s a chance the disease would be present.

She hopes the association will work to “more accurately describe what uses are possible today and what is frankly just conjecture.” For example, she said some private bank websites “never come out and say cord blood can cure Alzheimer’s or heart disease, but they kind of imply that.”

Researchers hope cord blood – typically discarded with umbilical cords and placentas – may one day be used to treat tissue damage caused by stroke and heart disease. But “none of these are proven yet,” Kurtzberg said.

Fellow board member Geoffrey Crouse, CEO of the private Cord Blood Registry, acknowledges that some private banks have “overstated the state of the research.” But he expects the association to “bring the industry to a higher standard.”

After offering continuing medical education programs last year to 3,000 health-care providers, Crouse said his company found a “600 percent improvement” in those who felt comfortable talking to patients about cord blood banking. “Twenty years into it, and still, on the front lines of medical practice, there’s a distinct need to educate physicians so they feel comfortable educating expectant parents on all their options.”