Following up on yesterday’s post about fetal blood and whether or not to bank what remains in the umbilical cord, allow the baby to receive the blood still contained within the placenta before clamping the cord or both, today’s post will explore the amazing discovery of stem cells within menstrual blood and their viability for treating illnesses of various kinds.
This incredible realization, presents an awesome opportunity to harvest and store stem cells in a way that is non-invasive, regularly available, easy to procure, cost-effective and free of the usual ethical concerns that plague stem cell research. In addition, the stem cells found in menstrual blood have been found to be highly proliferative – reproducing every 24 to 36 hours. While stem cells from ‘cord blood’ can be subcultured a maximum of 12 times, the stem cells found in menstrual blood have so far been subcultured up to 47 times. Also incredible to note is that the stem cells found in menstrual blood retain embryonic markers, meaning that they can morph into a wide variety of healthy cell types including heart, nerve, bone, cartilage and fat. When you think about the number of menstrual periods that the average woman will have in her lifetime (roughly, about 480), that is an incredible number of stem cells that could, theoretically, do an incredible amount of good. (Please note that the research I am drawing on – linked to above – was partially funded by a stem-cell storage company – clearly more research of a significantly more impartial nature is in order).
This post is something of a follow-up to the post I published a little while ago about the benefits of requesting delayed cord clamping during the 3rd stage of labour. As I discussed in that post, premature clamping of the cord (the current standard practice in most North American hospitals) deprives the newborn of about 40% of his own blood volume and has been found to contribute to anaemia in babies weeks or months after birth. Since the concern about increased risk of jaundice in babies whose cords were allowed to finish pulsating before clamping has been discredited by the most recent and comprehensive research, there is really no argument against allowing the cord to pulsate from a health and safety perspective at the time of birth.
The one complicating factor that remains though, is the fact that some parents are now considering the option of banking their newborn’s ‘cord blood’ (the term is something of a misnomer, since cord blood is really just fetal blood that hasn’t had time to flow back into the baby – calling it “cord blood” implies that it is somehow different from other fetal blood, but really calling it this is akin to referring to “leg blood” or “arm blood”, which obviously doesn’t make sense) for the purpose of stem cell preservation. The idea behind this practice is that the stem cells found in fetal blood could be stored and harvested later in the event of an illness that is treatable with stem cells. Since finding a stem cell match in the general population can be difficult and often poses ethical problems, banking cord blood is often seen as an insurance policy in case of illness.
The problem is, banking cord blood is expensive and not always reliable as the stem cells contained within it have a limited shelf-life and transplant is not always guaranteed. Given what we know about the benefits (as well as ease and cost-effectiveness) of delayed cord clamping and taking into account that the chance of ever using the stem cells from banked cord blood at all is only about 1/2 700, if one had to choose between the two practices, it seems that delayed cord clamping would be the way to go in the vast majority of cases (possibly excepting those where a first degree relative has a familial illness that is treatable with stem cells). Recently though, some medical practitioners have begun to explore the possibility of both delaying cord clamping and collecting ‘cord blood’ for banking. At present all of the evidence is anecdotal, but practitioners are reporting that while they aren’t able to collect the usual 500mL, they are able to collect 150mL or more with patience and care. That is more than enough to be useful for stem cell harvesting and seems like a ‘best-of-both-worlds’ option for those families where banking is indicated (i.e. in cases of previously diagnosed familial illness in first degree relatives). For more info on this, check out this article from Lamaze International where the most recent research on delayed cord clamping and cord blood banking is discussed.
Another absolutely fascinating new discovery is the fact that menstrual blood contains embryonic stem cells too! Part two will focus on the relationship between our fears about birth and our anxieties regarding our periods. Maybe the stem cell discovery will encourage a more favourable perspective on menstruation and the female body in general.