Health · pregnancy · Research

Saving lives with placenta donation 

I’d never heard about placenta donation until about a year ago when I saw someone on TV discussing it. I had no idea that the cord blood of the placenta is one of the richest sources of stem cells and every day it is routinely thrown away in the UK. It can be used to treat patients who are suffering from life threatening diseases including leukaemia, lymphoma, bone marrow failure, sickle cell anaemia, immunodeficiencies and metabolic disorders.

It’s less invasive then the better known method of bone marrow treatment as the placenta is simply taken away after delivery, the cord is cleaned and a needle is then inserted for the blood to flow naturally into a collection bag. It can be done whether you have a natural or a caesarean birth. Another benefit is that donors and recipients don’t need to be an exact match, as the stem cells in cord blood aren’t so mature and can develop to suit their recipient. That means it’s easier to find matches.

There are two public cord blood banks in the U.K, where the stem cells are donated to anyone who needs them (rather than private, paid-for services where people store cord blood only to be used by close family). These are the NHS Cord Blood Bank, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, and the Anthony Nolan charity. There are only a few hospitals where you can currently donate cord blood in the UK; Barnet General Hospital, Northwick Park Hospital, St George’s Hospital and University College Hospital in London, Watford General Hospital and Luton & Dunstable Hospital take part under the NHS Cord Blood Bank scheme and Saint Mary’s in Manchester, King’s College Hospital in London, Leicester Royal Infirmary and Leicester General Hospital for Anthony Nolan, but it is hoped that this will be expanded.

Stem cells are the body’s primary cells and can turn into other types of cell, like muscle, skin and red blood cells, as well as dividing to replenish damaged cells, acting as a repair system for the body. The important thing about cord blood is that it contains haematopoietic stem cells, which means for someone with blood cancer or a blood disorder, a transplant can repair damaged red and white blood cells, and platelets (which help your blood to clot) – saving their life. Cord blood also contains mesenchymal stem cells, which can repair body tissue.

For the best chance of a match, as much cord blood as possible needs to be stored, and the more people who donate, the less the NHS would have to import cord blood from overseas banks, which costs much more than getting cord blood in the UK. According to Anthony Nolan, 80% of transplant requests would be met if the UK saved the cord blood from just 50,000 births (there are around 700,000 births in the UK each year). Sadly, 99% is still discarded, so if you are in an area where you can donate, it will make all the difference.
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Image from Pixabay


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