On March 30, Michael J. and Margaret Murphy, parishioners of St. Mary’s Church, Rochester, celebrated the birth of their third child, David. By donating the blood from their baby’s umbilical cord for use in research and treatment of various illnesses, the Murphys also may have enabled someone else to continue celebrating birthdays.
Stem cells from umbilical-cord blood — which are classified as adult stem cells — can be used for treating patients with a variety of cancers, immune deficiencies, metabolic/storage diseases, and neurological, blood and tissue disorders. An added benefit of stem cells from cord blood is that its use is noncontroversial and considered ethical by the church, according to the New York State Catholic Conference, the public-policy arm of the state’s bishops. The church also supports medical use of other types of adult stem cells, but opposes embryonic stem-cell research, which involves the destruction of human embryos (see related story on page A1).
"By encouraging research with umbilical cord blood stem cells, New York State can treat disease, find cures and save lives without creating or destroying innocent human embryos for their stem cells," the conference asserts.
The Murphys share the church’s position, Michael said, noting the couple opposes embryonic stem-cell research because it "lessens the value of life."
"We believe that you’re going in a direction you don’t need to go" with embryonic stem-cell research, he said. "I feel like you’re treading in areas where you shouldn’t go."
Increased donation of blood from newborns’ umbilical cords may lessen demand for embryonic stem cells, Murphy added, noting that cord-blood cells already have been successfully used to treat patients. Murphy said he and his wife donated their son’s cord blood to Cryobanks International, a Florida-based company that maintains both a private cord-blood bank for families who wish to store the blood for their own use, and a public bank for use by researchers and those treating others. Cryobanks notes on its Web site that cord blood has been used in treatments since 1988.
Byron E. Johnson, spokesman for the National Marrow Donor Program in Minneapolis, said cord-blood cells can be transfused into a patient’s blood stream to treat various illnesses. Because they are "naive" and do not perceive their hosts as enemies, cord-blood stem cells are especially useful because they are less likely to attack their host than are other adult stem cells, he added. Johnson also noted that cord blood may be used by patients who are unable to find a bone-marrow match.
"It’s a great way to offer a gift of life to someone searching for a marrow donor," Johnson said.
Johnson suggested that expectant parents interested in donating infants’ cord blood call his organization at 1-800-MARROW2 (800/627-7692), or visit www.marrow.org and follow the links to information on cord-blood donation. Currently, the New York Blood Center in New York City is the largest cord-blood bank in the country and the one closest to most communities in the Diocese of Rochester, he said.
Parents can donate umbilical-cord blood quite easily, according to Dr. David Duggan, chairman of Upstate Medical Center’s department of medicine in Syracuse. After a mother gives birth, her child’s cord blood, which averages about 60 milliliters in weight — about one-fifth of a teaspoon — can be drained into a container. The procedure has no negative effects on either the mother or baby. The blood then can be shipped to a cord-blood bank, he said.
In the near future, state residents will be able to donate cord blood to a bank at Upstate Medical, according to Duggan, who noted that New York state has allocated funding for just such a bank at his facility. The primary sponsor of the funding was state Sen. John A. DeFrancisco of Onondaga County, whose spokeperson, Deanna Lynn, said opposes embryonic stem-cell research, but supports the use of cord blood.
"While people continue to debate the morals and ethics of (embryonic) stem-cell research, here’s a way to save lives now with what would be discarded medical waste," she said.
The Catholic conference strongly supported DeFrancisco’s efforts. It pointed to one report stating that a woman who had been paralyzed for 19 years by a spinal-cord injury walked with the aid of a walker after transplant of umbilical-cord blood cells. In a memorandum of support for DeFrancisco’s bill, the conference urged the state to continue to support umbilical-cord blood research.
"Cord blood stem cell research and therapies provide an ethical and highly beneficial alternative to controversial and harmful research using embryonic stem cells," the conference stated.