DURHAM — To donate the stem cell-rich umbilical cord blood produced during the birth of her daughter, Jaime Feaster of Lake Charles, La., would have had to drive more than two hours to the nearest hospital equipped to collect it.
That's a long way to go when you're in labor.
Instead, Feaster turned to a fledgling Duke University Medical Center program that provides collection kits to mothers and their doctors. When Feaster's daughter, Kadee, arrived last month, the cord blood was collected, packaged and quickly shipped to a blood bank at no cost to Feaster and with minimal commitment of time and expertise from her doctor.
Duke doctor Joanne Kurtzberg wants to replicate Feaster's experience on a large scale.
Kurtzberg hopes that an easier donation process will trigger a surge in donations of blood cells so valuable they've been used to reverse and even cure otherwise fatal disorders. The current cord blood supply can't keep up with the demand for its use in treating leukemia, sickle cell disease and other blood disorders, and the nation's hospital infrastructure isn't set up to tap even a fraction of the potential donors.
It's cheaper this way
Kurtzberg, a pediatrics professor who has pioneered the use of umbilical cord stem cells to treat cancer and genetic disorders in children, believes the kits can spur donations. She's part of a one-year test program financed by the National Marrow Donor Program to develop, distribute and track their effectiveness. Duke is one of three participating blood bank sites, along with the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and the Texas Cord Blood Bank in San Antonio.
Kurtzberg directs the Carolinas Cord Blood Bank, a Duke initiative that trains medical personnel and provides resources to collect the valuable blood at seven hospitals across the state, including Rex Healthcare , Durham Regional Hospital and UNC Hospitals. Those are North Carolina's only sites. Fewer than 200 hospitals nationwide do it.
It's costly. Duke pays $750,000 a year to equip each of those sites to collect the blood. But if you don't live near one of those sites, it's tough to donate.
That's where Kurtzberg's new kit comes in. It is a temperature-controlled box sent to expectant mothers at no cost. It includes all required consent forms and all the materials required for the blood collection, along with vials to store samples of the mother's blood, to be checked for infectious disease.
The kits cost $350 to $400 to make and are reusable.
By putting the kits into the hands of expectant mothers, Kurtzberg hopes to spur women to harvest their blood for science. The woman must persuade her doctor to take part; the doctor then takes a 10-minute online training course and agrees to collect the blood during the birth and ship it to a blood bank. The process adds about five minutes to the delivery, Kurtz berg said.
This gift can save lives
Feaster, the mother from Louisiana, learned about donation when her stepsister's two children received cord blood treatments at Duke for neurological disorders.
"Everyone tells you when you have a child that you should bank your cord blood, but it's not always financially possible," she said. "You don't realize how important it is until you know someone who goes through it. I really hope the cord blood from my daughter may help save someone's life. If I had another child I'd do it again."
This blood changes lives. It is rich in stem cells, prized because they can build healthy cells and tissue and repair or replace dead or damaged cells.
Kurtzberg has used cord blood to treat leukemia, metabolic disorders and sickle cell disease, and the parents of sick children flock to her Duke clinic for cord blood transplants.
Some cord blood isn't viable because of infection or other reasons. When collected properly at a medical center, the blood is viable once out of every two to 2 1/2 times, Kurtzberg said. That level of viability may drop with samples collected with the new kits; that's one factor Kurtzberg hopes to study. The program's goal is to collect 500 good samples.
"There's no ethical dilemma because it's otherwise discarded material," Kurtzberg said. "It is literally thrown in the trash, which frustrates a lot of people because it's good stuff."
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