Umbilical Cord Blood: A History of Clinical Use


Stem cell research has progressed at a rapid pace in the past few decades. Scientists have discovered that umbilical cord blood is a particularly rich source of stem cells and that cord blood can be used to treat many conditions. To give you an understanding of the capabilities of cord blood stem cells, this article will take a look at the history of cord blood and how it might be used in the future.

A brief history of stem cells

Scientists have been studying stem cells for over 100 years. They were first discovered in 1908 by a Russian histologist named Alexander Maksimov, who identified microscopic cells that were capable of creating blood cells.

Scientists confirmed the existence of hematopoietic stem cells (blood cell producing stem cells) in the bone marrow of mice in 1963. They quickly realised that transplanting bone marrow could potentially restore a person’s ability to create healthy blood cells.

The first successful bone marrow stem cell transplant was performed in 1968. Since then, thousands of lives have been saved using bone marrow transplants.

Around the same time, scientists discovered the existence of multipotent stem cells and pluripotent stem cells. These powerful stem cells are capable of transforming into many other types of cells, including bone, skin, heart, lung, and nerve cells.

Stem cells discovered in cord blood

In 1974, scientists discovered that human umbilical cord blood also contained stem cells and progenitor cells. Finding stem cells in cord blood meant that scientists had an easy-to-obtain source of stem cells for research. Up to this point, umbilical cord blood was typically discarded after the birth of a child.

It wasn’t until 1982 that researchers began discussing the prospect of preserving the stem cells found in cord blood. Dr Hal Broxmeyer, Edward A. Boyse and Judith Bard discussed storing cord blood so the hematopoietic stem (HSC) and progenitor cells (HPC) it contains could be preserved. This meeting led to the formation of the world’s first cord blood bank.

The clinical use of stem cells

Scientists were researching the use of cord blood stem cells throughout the 1980s. This culminated in the world’s first umbilical cord blood transplant in 1988. A young boy named Matthew Farrow received a transfusion of his sister’s umbilical cord blood.

At the time, Matthew was suffering from Fanconi Anaemia, a rare blood disorder. The transfusion of cord blood stem cells allowed his body to produce healthy blood cells once more, curing the condition. Matthew is alive and well today, thanks to cord blood stem cells.

A year later, the world’s first private cord blood bank officially opened its doors. This allowed parents to preserve the cord blood of their children for later use. The first public cord blood bank was opened in New York in 1992.

1989 was also the year that Dr Hal Broxmeyer published a paper in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, demonstrating that cord blood was an excellent source of stem cells and progenitor cells. Details of the Matthew Farrow’s successful cord blood transplant were published in the New England Journal of Medicine in same year.

The world’s first cord blood transplant for treating leukaemia occurred in 1990. The procedure was performed by Dr. John Wagner at the University of Minnesota. Since then, more than 1,300 umbilical cord blood transplants have been performed at the university.

Up to this point, all successful cord blood transplants had been performed between two members of the same family. This changed in 1993 when Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg performed the world’s first cord blood transplant between unrelated people at the Duke University Medical Centre.

Dr. Kurtzberg and her team completed many more cord blood transplants over the next few years. She published a paper outlining the first 25 cord blood transplants performed by the team in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1996. In the same year, the FDA approved a cord blood study with Dr. Kurtzberg as the principal investigator. Around the same time, the NIH/National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLB) sponsored the Cord Blood Transplantation Study (COBLT).

In 1997, Stephen Sprague became the first person to be treated for chronic myelogenous leukaemia with cord blood stem cells. He was treated at Hackensack University Medical Center, New Jersey.

By this stage, research breakthroughs were occurring at a rapid pace.  In 1998, Keone Penn became the first person to be successfully treated for sickle cell anaemia with a cord blood transplant. In the same year, Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg published a paper analysing the first 562 stem cell transplants that her team had performed. The paper demonstrated that cord blood was a very useful source of allogeneic hematopoietic stem cells for treating patients with leukaemia.

Over the next few years, numerous governments and health authorities made changes to make the use of cord blood stem cells easier.

By 2005, more than 6,000 cord blood transplants had been performed globally. In the same year, Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg demonstrated that cord blood stem cells could be used to treat metabolic disorders in children.  

By 2008, more than 70 different cancers, blood disorders, metabolic disorders, and immune system disorders were being treated with cord blood stem cells. And by 2017, more than 40,000 cord blood transplants had taken place worldwide.

Researchers have continued to discover potential uses for cord blood stem cells. Some recent research projects have used cord blood stem cells to:

  • Repair heart damage
  • Help with healing after cataract surgery
  • Partially restore movement in paralysed people
  • Treat diabetes
  • Speed up stroke recovery
  • Build a full-sized human heart
  • Repair brittle bones
  • Grow hair
  • Grow skin, and much more.

We can expect many more breakthroughs to occur in the coming years as scientists learn more about the incredible regenerative properties of cord blood stem cells.


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