Approximately 1,000 Canadians today are desperately in need of a stem cell transplant because it is their last and best hope for recovery. Canadian patients currently largely rely on stem cells from bone marrow or peripheral blood donors. There are not enough donors and the registry of donors does not reflect the ethnic diversity of Canadian patients. Stem cells from umbilical cord blood could help solve this critical problem but in Canada, umbilical cords are discarded at birth.
Regenerative qualities of stem cells
Stem cells are cells that can continually regenerate more stem cells and specific other kinds of cells. Adult stem cells have predetermined types of cells that they can generate. Stem cells from umbilical cord blood are immature adult stem cells. These stem cells can generate blood cells, connective tissue cells (like bone, cartilage and ligaments) and structure cells (like blood vessels). Adult bone marrow stem cells can generate the same three types of cells however cord blood is richer in the type of stem cells that can generate blood cells.
What are blood stem cells?
Blood stem cells are the building blocks of the cells found in our bloodstream: red blood cells for oxygen transportation, platelets for blood clotting and white blood cells for fighting infections. The cells in our blood stream are in a perpetual state of dying off and rebirth, so ongoing stem cell production is important. The three sources of blood stem cells for stem cell transplant are bone marrow, peripheral blood stem cells found in circulating blood and umbilical cord blood.
Why are they so important to medical treatment today?
Cord blood stem cell transplants are used for treating over 50 diseases and disorders, such as leukemia, lymphoma, aplastic anemia, inherited immune system and metabolic disorders, as well as sickle cell disease. Cord blood stem cell transplantation began as a medical treatment for pediatric patients, but now is also commonly used for adults who generally require two cord blood donations.
In addition, stem cell research and treatment is a growing area of medicine that has the potential to change the treatment of many diseases. Known as ‘Regenerative Medicine’ researchers hope to one day treat a variety of diseases, such as: Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, joint repair, diabetes, asthma and numerous other treatments. Promising results from a wide variety of research projects show the potential for turning this research into safe and effective medical therapies in the future.