Program to bank cord blood given life

California hospitals will start banking blood from umbilical cords and placentas, with permission, to help cure blood diseases and other illnesses and to tap a less-controversial source of disease-curing stem cells than fertilized embryos.

A state government-managed bank of donated cord blood will match donor cord blood with patients who have any of the roughly 70 diseases it currently is used to treat, including sickle cell anemia and immune deficiencies. Stem cells from the donated blood will be sold to researchers to help fund the bank’s operations.

The government program will eventually offer new mothers the choice of donating, saving or discarding cord blood.

A new state law that kick-starts the program was cheered by such groups as the California Catholic Conference, the National Marrow Donor Program and the recently formed Joanne Pang Foundation, which aims to help found a nonprofit Northern California cord blood bank.

The Joanne Pang Foundation was named after a San Francisco girl killed by leukemia in 2002. Joanne’s father says a cord blood bank could have saved the 9-year-old’s life. He said Joanne was injected with donated cord blood after a bone-marrow donor backed out of the painful and time-consuming operation, but the cord blood treatment was administered too late.

“When Joanne was born,” said father Joseph Pang, who founded the nonprofit foundation, “they asked me, ‘Are you going to keep the cord blood?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t need to, right?’ But if there was a public cord bank in San Francisco, maybe at the time I would have said, ‘Give the cord blood.’”

The cord blood banking bill, which was recently signed by the governor, was drafted by state Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco.

“It’s a miraculous new approach,” Migden said. “Umbilical cord blood has rich genetic material that can lead to 100 percent cure and recovery from many deadly blood diseases.”

It’s especially hard to match multicultural California patients with donor cord blood and bone-marrow donors.

“It’s even more of a challenge,” Migden said, “for unique individuals with blood heritage from different backgrounds to find an identical match.”

The government-run cord blood bank will take some time to form, however.

“We’ve got a few years to go,” said Migden, who will help launch the Joanne Pang Foundation’s public campaign to raise funds for a nonprofit cord blood bank on Nov. 15.

jupton@examiner.com

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