The Basics

What are adult stem cells?

Harvested from the discarded umbilical cord after a baby’s birth, umbilical cord blood is rich in adult stem cells. As far as stem cells go, there are two types: embryonic and adult. Embryonic stem cells are an extremely versatile medium; they can differentiate, or turn into, any cell type. However, embryonic stem cells are also extremely controversial, due to the fact that they must be harvested from human embryos. Pro-life advocates see this practice as causing the death of a child, which causes much dissension between the scientific and religious community. Adult stem cells, the type found in UCB, have partially differentiated. While this means that they are not as inherently versatile, they are also a non-controversial source of stem cells. Umbilical cord blood can be collected without any risk of harm to either mother or child and these stem cells can be used to help treat a host of diseases and disorders in the human body. The diagram below illustrates some of the different cells that stem cells can differentiate into.

Diagram showing applications of stem cells

How is cord blood collected?

After a child is born, the umbilical cord (attached on one end to the mother and on the other end to the child) is knotted or clamped on both sides and removed. Blood is then extracted from the umbilical cord into a sterile bag via an apparatus similar to this:

Cord Blood Collection Bag

By Cord Blood Registry

What happens to the blood after it has been collected?

The newly collected cord blood is then sent to a cryogenic storage center, where the stem cells are processed and then frozen until the stem cells are needed. UCB can remain frozen for long periods of time, with little degradation to the quality of the stem cells, which means that any donation from any time period can be used to help someone today.

Why is umbilical cord blood important?

UCB is a highly versatile substance that can be used to treat numerous diseases. (For a full list of what UCB can treat, as well as what applications are currently being researched, click on the “Treatments” tab above.) Furthermore, it can treat these diseases without causing any harm to either mother or child. The stem cells are adult and are not harvested from human embryos. But, most importantly, you can donate. Any mother who undergoes a normal delivery with no complications can donate the umbilical cord. And, as most UNC students aspire to have families, many of us will be faced with the opportunity to donate UCB in five, ten, fifteen years. The donation process is outlined in the tab, “Donation.”