Should we bank our new baby’s umbilical cord blood as a possible treatment for autism? Our first child was recently diagnosed with ASD.
This week’s “Got Questions?” answer comes from Alycia Halladay, PhD, Autism Speaks senior director of environmental and clinical sciences, and Daniel Smith, PhD, Autism Speaks senior director of discovery neuroscience.
This is a question we’ve received a lot at Autism Speaks. The inquiries have increased with the recent launch of a clinical trial studying the effectiveness of cord blood transplantation on autism symptoms in children ages 2 to 7 years of age.
First, we need to make clear that, at this time, there’s no scientific evidence that cord blood is an effective treatment for autism.
What we know is that a newborn’s umbilical cord blood contains stem cells. In recent decades, stem cells have been used to treat certain blood diseases, cancers and immune disorders. When patients undergo a stem cell transplant for these conditions, the stem cells essentially rebuild their blood and immune systems.
Some people believe that cord blood can treat autism, and some American parents have been taking their children overseas for such treatments. The new U.S. clinical trial is the first to receive the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This provides us with assurance that it’s being done according to safety standards. (More about the study here.)
This study uses a child's own previously collected cord blood, not a sibling's. This is a crucial point. When a sibling’s cord blood is used and it’s less than a perfect match, transplant rejection is likely and dangerous. The alternative is to use powerful drugs to suppress the immune system of the child receiving the transplant. This is a serious and potentially dangerous intervention. Few physicians would justify immunosuppression in non-life-threatening circumstances. This is particularly the case when studies have yet to show any clear benefit.
This research is new and relatively unexplored. Not only do we not know the benefits, we also don’t fully understand the risks. Also we don’t know whether the kind of cord blood processing used in treating blood disorders or cancer is the right type of process for a treatment directed at autism. Nor do we have long-term follow up studies of children with autism who have already received experimental stem cell transplantation. Such long-term tracking is vital for monitoring effectiveness as well as long term side effects including infection and organ failure.
If you are considering cord blood transplantation outside of a clinical trial, there are also significant costs. Currently, the donation of cord blood – for established medical uses – is free and done through public cord blood banks. By contrast, banking cord blood for personal use is typically done through a private cord blood bank with costs of $3,000 to $5,000 for the initial collection and processing, and around $500 per year for storage.
We encourage anyone considering banking or donating their newborn’s cord blood to talk with their obstetrician. He or she can explain the process and help you reach an informed decision to bank or donate. You can learn more about cord blood donation here.
For more information on cord blood banking, information is available from the non-profit Parent's Guide to Cord Blood Foundation.