by Traci Chapman – staff writer/photographer
As World Cord Blood Day nears, Oklahoma Blood Institute is on the forefront of this life-saving stem cell collection – and three technicians believe in the process, and their employer, so much, they are investing in their own futures to help others.
DeAnn Cross, Yoshanna Larson and April Hatchell have worked a combined 27 years at Oklahoma Blood Institute. All three started their OBI careers in mobile blood collection units; each chose to work on the developing cord blood program as each pursues a nursing degree.
The work of this trio, and others like them, is highlighted by Nov. 15’s World Cord Blood Day, an effort to illustrate the universe of possibilities the stem cells found in umbilical cords open up for patients.
“It’s amazing, the potential is amazing,” Larson said. “Cord blood treats over 80 different diseases, things like cancer – but it can also work for things like paraplegic healing.
“When you look at people who are adopted or who might not have family members, there are not as many donors on the register who can be a match to them,” she said.
While stem cells are located in several areas throughout the body – the brain, blood, liver, muscles and, most notably, bone marrow, umbilical cord blood is much denser in its stem cell counts. While cord blood can replace damaged or dysfunctional cells like other collected cells, research is finding even more significant treatment paths unique to the umbilical cord, said Mandi Kaiser, OBI’s therapeutic apheresis and cellular therapy manager.
“Of course, the research is ongoing, but it’s clear there is something very, very special about these particular cells,” she said.
“The cord has such small cells – they’re easier to find a match because they’re immature, it’s like a clean slate,” Hatchell said. “The umbilical cord is the biggest producer of stem cells in our body.”
Researchers with the National Institutes of Health back up those statements. According to NIH studies on cord blood, the chance of Graft versus Host Disease – GvHD – is less likely with this source of stem cells, and a patient’s chance for relapse after treatment for leukemia and other diseases is much lower.
Cord blood also offers other advantages, Cross, Larson and Hatchell said. Utilizing those cells can avoid the necessity of critically ill patients having to undergo stem cell harvest before treatments like chemotherapy and radiation. While, of course, those kinds of procedures would never be completely replaced by cord blood, it could mean a massive difference not only in possible outcomes, but also how their treatment might progress, experts said.
Unlike embryonic stem cells, cord blood is only collected after a baby’s birth and doesn’t interfere with the labor and delivery process. There are no ethical or religious concerns in utilizing cells collected from the umbilical cord and placenta after birth – only benefits, Cross said.
“There literally is no reason why this shouldn’t be done after most births, especially when you look at the benefits to so many patients, the number of lives that could be saved and possibility impacted,” she said. “While there are some factors that make a cord unusable – things like infection or disease in a family – that’s the minority.”
So, what’s the problem – why isn’t cord blood harvesting a regular part of the post-birth process and a readily available treatment tool for Oklahoma patients?
“There just isn’t the education out there yet about these benefits – and the fact is that these umbilical cords and placentas are literally being thrown in the trash,” Cross said.
That’s where OBI and the three-member team of Cross, Larson and Hatchell – and their boss Kaiser – come in, as the non-profit steadily works toward becoming the first Oklahoma facility to have a cord blood bank. It’s a long process, though, as OBI negotiates most notably U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations, but also other agency requirements that will allow cord blood donated here to be part of a registry offered to patients who need it.
“We’ve built the lab and we’ve purchased the equipment, but we have to prove our technology – everything has to be validated,” Kaiser said. “The units we are collecting now are just for that purpose, because we have to have 200 bankable units to even apply to the FDA.”
Once OBI’s cord blood unit fulfills all the necessary criteria, FDA has up to six months to reply to the facility’s application to finalize the stem cell bank.
“It could be six months, it could be two weeks,” Kaiser said. “There’s just no way to know, but we think we’re looking at a year or two process.”
No matter how long that process, one thing seems sure – OBI will be making stem cell history in Oklahoma.
“We’ll be the first in the state to have a cord blood bank,” Larson said.
As the team collects the cells necessary for accreditation, they are finding just how crucial labor and delivery nurses can be to the process. While Larson, Hatchell and Cross can educate women about to give birth about all that cord can do, the nurses who guide those patients through that process can also be a part of changing a life – with something that many consider medical waste.
“It’s really a great deal about education – because a lot of people who aren’t doing this don’t even know what it’s about or how much it can mean to others,” Larson said. “It’s up to us not only to collect these cells when the mother agrees to it, but also to let everyone involved know these literally can mean the difference between life and death for someone.”
That knowledge spurred all three OBI technicians to pursue some education of their own, Kaiser said. Hatchell and Larson are attending Rose State, while Cross is studying at OSU-OKC, all working toward their nursing degrees. It was the kind of dedication and belief in what they’re doing that has permeated each in their OBI career, Kaiser said.
“I saw what they were doing here, it’s groundbreaking – I saw I could have a piece of the future,” Hatchell said. “I just wanted to be a part of that.”
“To think about what this could mean to so many people, to their families, the people who love them and to their lives – well it’s pretty easy to want to help make that a reality,” Cross said. “It’s a blessing to have a job that potentially means so much to so many.”
More information about Word Cord Blood Day is available online at https://www.worldcordbloodday.org/.