Blood from babies’ umbilical cords at birth can be used instead of bone marrow transplants to save the lives of patients with diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma and sickle cell anemia. And the cord blood does not need to match the recipient as closely as bone marrow, yet it’s often discarded as medical waste.
“My brother-in-law, Peter Po‘omaihealani, died at age 26 while waiting for a matching bone marrow transplant in 1992. He had acute myeloid leukemia,” recalls Dr. Angela Pratt, department chair of OB-GYN at Kapi‘olani Medical Center for Women & Children.
“Both sides of my family tested to become a match, but there was none. If we had known about cord blood transplants at the time, Peter’s life might’ve been saved.”
The nonprofit Hawai‘i Cord Blood Bank was launched in 1998 as a pilot project at Kapi‘olani Medical Center. Today, Pratt encourages all her patients to donate their babies’ cord blood to HCBB to potentially save lives. About 90% of the birthing doctors on O‘ahu participate by donating their time to collect the blood, and hospitals donate space, equipment and supplies.
“There’s nothing really that the patient has to do except meet some criteria for their cord blood donation to be acceptable – such as not having an infection or a communicable disease like HIV, and then having a certain cord blood volume,” Pratt says.
More than 10 of Pratt’s patients so far have been notified that their babies’ cord blood helped save others’ lives. “It makes them feel good that they’re sharing the fortune of their baby’s health.”
Dr. Randal Wada, president and medical director of HCBB, says he founded the nonprofit to take advantage of Hawai‘i’s ethnically diverse but very centralized population, “with 80% of the births taking place on one island, O‘ahu, and only five facilities on this island that deliver babies.”
“It’s actually possible to capture the full diversity of the state by staying in a small place geographically – unlike metropolitan LA, which is huge.”
Diversity is key, says Wada, when you’re trying to find a transplant match for a patient of mixed ethnicity. “The advantage of using cord blood is that it doesn’t have to match as precisely as bone marrow does. The blood is collected upfront, then stored until needed, frozen in liquid nitrogen in banks across the country.”
The Hawai‘i Cord Blood Bank is unusual, according to Wada, because it’s community-based and almost all-volunteer; cord blood banks on the Mainland are usually associated with large hospitals or universities.
The agency has three full-time staff and a part-time nurse educator, with about half of its $400,000 annual budget coming from a private endowment fund, a quarter from transplant fees and another quarter from individual donors and private grants.
There have been 247 national and international matches with Hawai‘i donors so far, according to Wada.
“Having too many donors would be a fantastic problem to have.”