Stem of life:By Dorsey Griffith
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- When James and Erin Treadwell race off to Sutter Memorial Hospital for the birth of their first child next month, they'll be carrying more than the requisite robe, thick socks and soothing music in their suitcase.
The Sacramento couple will bring along a box with three big syringes so that when the time comes the doctor can collect the baby's umbilical cord blood. The blood then will be sent to an Arizona lab where it will be processed and frozen at 400 degrees below zero in case baby Treadwell, the baby's parents or future siblings ever need it to fight a deadly disease.
Erin Treadwell, 31, likes to think of their decision to spend $1,200 on the procedure plus $95 a year for storage as an investment, like a good education.
The Treadwells and thousands like them are banking on an emerging science that builds and improves upon bone marrow transplantation to treat various cancers, blood and immune system disorders.
The umbilical cord blood of newborns has historically been thrown out with the placenta in the hospital biomedical waste bin (and still is most of the time). But scientists now know that cord blood contains precious stem cells worthy of saving for potential future use. Banking stem cells is growing particularly popular with mixed-race couples, those adopting newborns and families with histories of cancer or blood disorders.
Stem cells are the building blocks of blood and the immune system. After cancer treatments destroy both healthy and diseased cells, for example, an infusion of stem cells can regenerate red or white blood cells and platelets and give recipients another chance at life.
Bone marrow also contains stem cells, but finding a bone marrow match for someone in need of a transplant can be costly, time-consuming and, in the end, frustrating. The search can be especially difficult for people of varied racial or ethnic backgrounds.
That was the case for Joshua Kelton of Honolulu. Joshua's father is African American and his mother Filipino. When Joshua was diagnosed with leukemia in 1997 at age 4, there was no donor available on the national bone marrow registry with his background. And neither parent nor their older daughter was a match. Time was running out.
Then Herbert and Evelyn Kelton heard about cord blood transplantation.
They weren't planning to have another child but decided to try for Joshua's sake. Evelyn Kelton became pregnant right away, and doctors at Tripler Army Medical Center performed a Caesarean section six weeks before the due date. Justin was born a healthy 7 pounds, and doctors removed his cord blood and shipped it to the University of Arizona. The blood was a perfect match and was readied for transplantation.
One month later, the family flew to Stanford, where Joshua received the stem cells of his newborn brother. Today, there is no sign of leukemia, and Joshua is an energetic 6-year-old eager to jump into the family car for the next adventure.
Justin is 10 months old and already learning about his role in helping cure his big brother. "We tell him he is a special baby, an angel," said his father.
Unlike the Keltons, most families deciding to harvest the cord blood of their newborns are doing so for potential future use.
Imei Hsiu is a Sacramento family doctor and plans to deliver the Treadwell baby. A resident physician, it will be her first cord blood harvest, and she is excited about the potential for its use based on the rapid evolution of science.
"The last few years, we didn't think it was possible to clone animals," she said. "I think it's a very interesting trend of parents wanting to provide long-term for their children other than just vaccination and the very best education."