Jan 232006
Authors: Hallie Woods

Not even a day old, Shai Verter was already facing cancer.

Verter was born with a cancerous tumor infecting her entire pelvic region. The newborn faced a year and a half of exhausting cancer treatment.

Despite the travel from hospital to hospital, the devastating chemotherapy treatments and the frequent blood transfusions, young Verter's enthusiasm for life didn't stop.

"Throughout this ordeal, Shai remained full of spunk. Children with cancer have a resilience that is awe-inspiring," said her mother, Frances Verter on her Web site dedicated to Shai, www.parentsguidecordblood.com.

At age 4, the clouds lifted, and Frances could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Shai went into remission and eventually healed enough to join the children at her new preschool. At the time, things were looking up for the Verters.

Then devastation struck again.

Triggered by prior cancer treatment, Shai was diagnosed with secondary leukemia. A bone marrow transplant became necessary, but seemingly impossible due to Shai's very rare tissue type, making it difficult to find a match.

After searching internationally for months, Shai received a bone marrow transplant as her family hoped for her recovery. After suffering through both liver and heart failure, Shai pressed on with the aid of life support.

But little Shai's time on earth was limited. The exhaustion and severity of her disease took a toll on her fragile body. After the surgery, the leukemia lapsed, and 5-year-old Shai said goodbye to her family.

After time, Frances healed and began to press on with her life. However, when her second baby arrived, Frances did everything in her power to keep this child safe from harm.

"I decided to bank the cord blood, because I knew it could be used for transplants and had experienced first-hand how hard it can be to find a matching donor," Frances continued on her Web site: A Parents' Guide To Cord Blood Bank.

When expectant parents plan for the arrival of their baby, they now have more to think about besides what to pack for the hospital and what color to paint the nursery walls. Now, parents must plan for their baby's future illnesses with preparation at the time of birth.

"Almost everyone agrees it is better to save umbilical cord blood than to discard it as 'medical waste,'" Frances said on her Web site.

A new technology using stem cells from the blood of the umbilical cord has emerged as a preemptive option for disease treatment. Cord blood banking allows families to collect, freeze and store umbilical cord blood for years to come.

"Parents are essentially saying they want to save the stem cells in the cord blood for future use," said Justine Koenigsberg, director of communication at Viacell, the parent company for Viacord in Cambridge, Mass.

When a family learns they are expecting a baby, parents can make a phone call to one of the many cord blood banks across the United States, regardless of what state they live in.

The company then sends the family a collection kit to take to the hospital at the time of birth where the doctor will collect the umbilical cord blood. After collection, the blood is sent to the company where it will then be processed and frozen in liquid nitrogen.

"The cord blood can be kept, in theory, indefinitely," said Marla Eby, vice president of marketing at Family Cord Blood Services in Los Angeles.

Those wanting to store their blood must pay a fee. At Viacord, there is a $1,800 fee to process the blood, followed by a $125 annual storage fee.

Parents must also decide whether to donate the blood to a public bank or store it in a personal bank where it will be kept solely for family access.

"In a public bank, once you donate it, you are not attached to the cord blood and may not be able to use it again," Eby said.

Family Cord Blood Services is also offering a program allowing parents to store their blood privately for 10 years and then make the decision whether to allow it to be publicly donated or continue with private storage. However, if the family wants to enroll in the program, the decision must be made upon collection to allow for certain blood tests, Eby said.

Like other organ or blood transplants, private banking ensures a perfect match for the child whose blood was stored. In case of a family illness, cord blood can also be used for siblings or other family members who share the same genetics.

Although cord blood banking is relatively new, its popularity is growing significantly amongst obstetricians and patients alike.

"We've had 18 cases where cells (from the cord blood) have been called upon from families that have banked here," Koenigsberg said.

In 1988, doctors and scientists performed the first successful cord blood transplant. Today, stem cells from cord blood are used to treat diseases, cancer, blood disorders, genetic disorders, immunodeficiencies and bone marrow problems.

"One of the benefits of cord blood transplants is that cord blood is readily available when the transplant needs to be done, where bone marrow you have to wait for a match," Eby said.

Research scientists hope the frequency of cord blood storage continues to grow along with the list of diseases cord blood can cure.

"The belief and hope is that in the future it will be used to treat other diseases," Koenigsberg said.

With the story of little Shai Verter in the back of many expectant parents' minds, cord blood banking is an optimistic prevention of future illnesses.

"I didn't expect to have another child with cancer, but I wanted to give my children every possible form of health insurance," Frances Verter said.

Hallie Woods can be reached at regional@collegian.com.

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