Family starts cord-blood program following life-saving gift

    Transplants of stem cells from umbilical cord blood can cure more than 70 diseases, including leukemia, lymphoma and sickle cell anemia. But there are few cord-blood banks around the country, and storing cord blood for private use can cost thousands of dollars up front as well as storage fees.

    When Sarah Shaffer found out her then 5-month-old son, Mason, had a life-threatening blood disorder, she was told he would need a stem-cell transplant to save his life.

    “I said to my husband, ‘I don’t remember anybody telling us about donating cord blood,'” Shaffer said. “I remember finding out that there wasn’t a single hospital in the Philadelphia area that was a donation hospital. And we found that to be unacceptable.”

    After a transplant saved her son’s life, Shaffer and her husband started a foundation in his name and pushed for a program that would make the hospital where he was born a donation site. Now, mothers who give birth at Bryn Mawr Hospital and Lankenau Medical Center will be able to donate umbilical cord blood to a public bank for free.

    “We felt it necessary to make that opportunity available to other parents to do what somebody else did for us,” Shaffer said.

    Cord blood collected from volunteer donors at the Main Line hospitals will go to Community Blood Services in New Jersey, a cord-blood bank that has been in operation since 1996. New Jersey was the first state to start publicly funding a cord-blood bank in 2005. The bank has collected about 8,000 samples since 1996; about 250 of them have been used.

    Misty Marchioni, with Community Blood Services, said the diverse areas served by those hospitals make them a good addition.

    “We really need more African American units, they’re underrepresented in the national registries,” Marchioni said. Cord blood must come from a donor of the same ethnicity of the recipient. “And because they do have a high population of African Americans, the willingness of the hospital system made it an ideal location to offer public banking.”

    This is the first public banking program in the Philadelphia area and, according Marchioni, only the second in the state. She said she hopes to expand the program to Paoli and Riddle hospitals.

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