Plan Seeks A Bank For Key Blood Cells The Valuable Cells Can Treat Serious Diseases. A Legislator Wants A Place They Can Be Kept For Citizens' Medical Needs.

Posted: April 17, 1998

TRENTON — They're critical building blocks of the body. They can restore a damaged blood-forming system and create the white and red blood cells and platelets that help the body heal, carry oxygen to tissues and fight off infections.

They may be the key to treating leukemia, Hodgkin's disease, lymphoma and Fanconi's anemia.

But the usual source of the so-called stem cells has been the bone marrow - and obtaining them requires expensive bone-marrow transplants, an exact donor match, and willing donors for a painful operation.

Yesterday, another source of those valuable cells was being sought - through state legislation that would provide $5 million for the establishment of the New Jersey Cord Blood Resource Center in Camden, which would collect stem cells from the blood in the umbilical cords of newborn babies.

The center would be located at the Coriell Institute for Medical Research and may be the first bank specifically established for the health-care needs of the general public.

Assembly Majority Leader Paul DiGaetano (R., Bergen, Essex and Passaic) announced the new measure during a news conference at the Statehouse and is expected to formally introduce it on Monday.

The proposal follows years of research showing that the blood in an umbilical cord is rich in stem cells - and if collected and stored immediately after birth, it can be transplanted into the original host body or possibly others with life-threatening diseases.

The blood from the umbilical cords of 4,000 babies could be collected over an 18-to-24-month period, the Coriell Institute said yesterday. It will also be used for research aimed at increasing the number of stem cells.

``Because a newborn baby has been making a new blood system within themselves, the blood of the umbilical cord is unusually rich in stem cells,'' DiGaetano said. ``In addition, because they are captured immediately after birth, they are much less likely to contain contaminating viruses.

``This is one of the problems currently facing bone-marrow transplants. An adult may already have an infected blood system, which makes their bone marrow useless to the patient in need,'' he said.

The use of bone-marrow transplants to cure blood diseases has other limitations, too, DiGaetano said. Finding a match is extremely difficult and the painful operation can discourage donors when time is a critical factor.

``The current system of bone-marrow transplants has failed one too many times,'' said the lawmaker, adding that the legislation ``may save numerous lives in New Jersey.

``Through the use of stem cells, time becomes less of a factor and because of the richness of the blood, it can be easily matched to patients. The collection process is simple and completely painless for the newborn.''

Umbilical cord stems cells have been used to treat a variety of genetic diseases since 1988. They are more easily matched to a specific patient. They are more concentrated than stem cells in the bone marrow, giving them greater reproducing capacity. And they are less expensive to transplant than bone marrow.

``While several cord blood banks have been established around the world, they have largely been focused on research and research subjects,'' said David P. Beck, president of the Coriell Institute. ``The Cord Blood Resource Center proposed for the state of New Jersey will be the first bank established explicitly for the purpose of meeting the health-care needs of the general public.''

The collection process occurs immediately after a baby's delivery. The umbilical cord is clamped and a sterile needle is inserted into the unattached cord, allowing the blood to flow by gravity into a container. The entire procedure is painless and takes about three to five minutes.

Amy E. Leach, a spokeswoman for the Coriell Institute, said the blood would then be transferred to the facility for storage. The cord blood cells would be preserved at below-freezing temperatures in tanks filled with liquid nitrogen. She said the blood would come from an ethnically diverse population.

``This is a resource for the citizens of New Jersey,'' Leach said. ``We want every representative group out there. We would have a public bank . . . and be able to supply any of New Jersey's citizens with blood to match their own.''

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