Sickle Cell Disease: Cord Blood to the Rescue

Normal red blood cells take the form of neat little discs, each one with a little depression at the center. With this shape, they are easily able to pass through every little blood vessel and valve in the body.

Some children inherit genes from their parents that deform their red blood cells in a specific way - they become elongated and shaped like a crescent or a sickle. These red blood cells are not just the wrong shape. They lose their pliability, as well.

Normal red blood cells are able to pass through microscopic capillaries by squeezing in to enter them and then regaining their normal shape when they pass out. Sickle cells are rigid and unable to deform, though. When they come upon tiny capillaries, they just get stuck in them. The normal flow of blood is disrupted by such blockages. Poor blood supply can result in pain, strokes and infections. Since sickle cells are very short-lived, a child with the disease quickly becomes anemic, too.

Conventional treatment options for sickle cell disease

Conventional sickle cell treatment plans don't offer much hope. When a child is first diagnosed with the disease at 2 or 3 months of age, doctors usually prescribe antibiotics and immunization to help the child stay safe from opportunistic infections that can take advantage of the child's weakened state. Pain management is a big part of conventional treatment plans for sickle cell disease, too. Sometimes, blood transfusions can help.

Stem cell therapy is beginning to show great promise in the treatment of sickle cell disease

The only possible cure today for sickle cell disease comes from stem cell therapy. In stem cell therapy, a willing sibling of the patient donates bone marrow to the ailing child. Doctors first use chemotherapy to destroy the patient's malfunctioning bone marrow that produces sickle cells instead of regular red blood cells. Then, the donor's healthy marrow and stem cells are placed in the patient. Once in, they begin producing healthy new red blood cells. This procedure comes with a high degree of risk. If the receiver's body refuses to accept the transplant, it can cause lifelong complications.

Stem cells from cord blood are a far more promising treatment method

Bone marrow isn't the only possible source of stem cells. Cord blood - the blood in a newborn baby's umbilical cord and placenta - is a rich source of stem cells, too. These stem cells are a better idea than bone marrow stem cells in a number of ways.

To begin, harvesting cord blood stem cells is much easier. Parents can sign up with a blood bank like FamilyCord to have their child's cord blood harvested at birth and stored. To have one's own cord blood to harvest stem cells from is even better than getting some from a compatible donor.

Finding a compatible donor isn't very difficult with cord blood cells, either. A perfect match isn't needed - partial matches work well, too. U.S. blood banks, for instance, keep 150,000 units of cord blood in storage at any given time. Since only a partial match is needed, the stem cells obtained from them is likely to be a match for 90% of the U.S. population.

How do cord blood stem cells help a child with sickle cell disease?

To treat a child with sickle cell disease, doctors first administer intensive chemotherapy to make sure that the existing diseased blood and marrow system that creates sickle cells is thoroughly destroyed. Once chemotherapy ends, they administer cord blood stem cells to the child. The cells go in and manage to create healthy red blood cells and a healthy immune system. The possibilities for rejection are far lower when the stem cells used come from cord blood instead of bone marrow.

The success rate for this procedure is high. Children begin feeling better within days.

Alice Pettaway practiced medicine for many years. Recently retired, she likes to spend her time gardening, but when the weather won't permit that, she likes to blog online.