Pregnancy health

Umbilical cord blood donations save lives

The Give Life Twice campaign encourages new moms to donate cord blood.

Umbilical cord blood donations save lives

Photo: iStockphoto

Moms know all about the miracle of life, but according to the Canadian Blood Services, eight out of 10 women don’t know that, when they’re expecting, they can actually save a life while giving new life—through their baby’s umbilical cord blood, that is.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has just released a statement encouraging the use of public cord banks to help all families treat fatal and debilitating diseases. Cord blood taken from healthy newborns' placentas is an excellent source of stem cells that can be used for transplantation to treat some diseases. The organization stresses that donating to public banks offers more benefits than storing cord blood privately, which costs $1,350 to $2,300 and keeps the blood solely for the family's own use. “Most parents will never need cord blood for their own family’s use, but they can donate this precious life-saving gift to benefit others,” said William T. Shearer, lead author of the AAP statement.

Earlier this year, Canadian Blood Services launched a campaign called Give Life Twice that encourages new moms to donate their baby’s umbilical cord blood through a public blood bank that provides stem cells to people who need it. Umbilical cord blood and the placenta can be used to treat more than 80 diseases and disorders such as blood cancers, aplastic anemia, metabolic-type diseases and sickle cell disease. “We’re trying to spread awareness to let women know that this is an option for them,” says Heidi Elmoazzen, director of cord blood banking and stem cell manufacturing for Canadian Blood Services.

Since 2013, Canadian Blood Services has rolled out umbilical cord blood donation sites at the following select hospitals across the country: the Ottawa Hospital General and Civic Campuses, the William Osler Health System’s Brampton Civic Hospital, the Alberta Health Services’ Lois Hole Hospital for Women and The B.C. Women’s Hospital and Health Centre in Vancouver. Though there are no plans to expand to additional hospitals at this moment, the end goal is to build a public bank in Canada that’s reflective of the country’s unique ethnic diversity. “In Canada we’re searching on behalf of hundreds of patients who need a stem cell transplant, and you’re much more likely to find a stem cell match within someone of your own ethnic or racial background.”

The first place patients look for a match is within their own families, but unfortunately, 75 percent of them don’t find a match among their relatives and therefore must rely on unrelated donors. Canada’s current bank doesn’t proportionally represent the ethnic groups unique to the country, such as the First Nation, Inuit and Metis peoples. Because Canada’s population is vastly diverse, a more ethnically varied blood bank would be able to help more people, including mixed-race patients. “There are 28 million adults around the world signed up for bone marrow registry. And there’s about 700,000 publicly banked cord blood units around the world. But even with these high numbers, we can’t find matches for half of our Canadian patients,” says Elmoazzen. “That’s why building a bank that’s reflective of the unique diversity we have in Canada is so important.”

Since the cells in umbilical cord blood are immature, its easier for patients to get matched. Unlike bone marrow transplants, where patients, who are tested for human leukocyte antigen (HLA) markers, must find at least a nine out of 10 HLA match, with cord blood, matches are rated out of six and a score as low as four out of six will suffice.

For moms-to-be who are looking to donate their babies’ cord blood, the process is super simple: You just fill out a Permission to Collect consent form that you can download online and bring it in the day of delivery to notify your physician, midwife or nurse about your intention to donate your baby’s cord blood. You can also give your completed consent form to your health care provider during one of your prenatal visits. After the healthy baby is delivered, the cord blood is collected in a matter of minutes, causing no pain to the mom or baby. And unlike private cord blood banking, donating publicly is free of charge. The cord blood unit is sent to one of the two manufacturing facilities—either in Ottawa or Edmonton, depending on where you’re delivering—where it gets screened for infectious disease, tested for blood grouping, genetics and HLA. If a mother’s donated cord blood unit tests say it’s free of infectious disease and safe for a patient transplant, it’s stored in liquid nitrogen at -196 degrees Celsius, a temperature that preserves it for an indefinite period of time. The unit is then uploaded to a national and international registry that lets physicians in Canada and around the world know it’s available for transplant. If it’s a match, it’ll ship out from the manufacturing facility.


To donate, a woman must be at least 34 weeks pregnant, relatively healthy and giving birth to a singleton. Moms are asked to fill out a medical conditions chart similar to those you find at other blood donation centres.

Cord blood that’s not donated will be discarded as medical waste. Luckily, since the Give Life Twice campaign has launched, Elmoazzen says there’s been an increase in donations. “When moms hear they can potentially give life twice, it’s a pretty easy sell.”

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