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Panel calls newborns' cord blood a lifeline

WASHINGTON -- Blood saved from newborns' umbilical cords could help treat about 11,700 Americans a year with leukemia and other devastating diseases, yet most is routinely thrown away, a panel of influential scientists said yesterday in calling for a tripling of the nation's supply.

Cord blood is rich in stem cells, the building blocks that produce blood -- the same stem cells that make up the bone-marrow transplants that help many people survive certain cancers and other diseases. When frozen from cord blood shortly after a baby's birth, stem cells are ready to be thawed and transplanted at a moment's notice, much easier than traditional bone-marrow donation.

Now the government is preparing to open a national cord blood bank in hopes of providing an adequate supply to find a match for every patient who needs this kind of stem-cell transplant.

Private cord blood banks, which store a child's cord blood, for a hefty fee, in case a family member ever needs it, are part of a booming industry.

Women also can donate a baby's cord blood so that anyone can use it.

Many medical groups caution that odds are slim that privately stored cord blood will be used unless certain genetic diseases are common to a family. But because stem cells from cord blood are more easily transplanted into unrelated people than is bone marrow, specialists have long urged a bigger and better coordinated national stockpile.

But few women learn about the option of donating the cord blood: It's seldom advertised and is offered only at hospitals affiliated with 22 public cord blood banks around the country.

About 100,000 donations from pregnant women in the next few years would be required to set up the bank, on top of the roughly 50,000 cord-blood donations already in stock at different public banks around the country, the Institute of Medicine said yesterday, in a report requested by Congress on how a better national banking system should be established.

The National Marrow Donor Program, which coordinates bone marrow donation as well as a voluntary consortium of public cord blood banks, lists hospitals that participate. The website is www.marrow.org.

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