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Hospital needs ethnically diverse donors

By Stefania Seccia

Since Jan. 26, B.C. Women's Hospital has collected 410 units of umbilical cord blood in an effort to up stem cells samples for those in need.

Since Jan. 26, B.C. Women's Hospital has collected 410 units of umbilical cord blood in an effort to up stem cells samples for those in need. (Fotolia)

When Cara Siu was born, she had an incompatibility with her mother’s blood and needed a full transfusion right after being born.

She said if it wasn’t for the Canadian blood bank she wouldn’t have lived — so when she gave birth to her son Jasper eight weeks ago at B.C. Women’s Hospital, Siu didn’t think twice about donating her baby’s umbilical cord to the Canadian Blood Services’ Cord Blood Bank.

“I found out how difficult it is for ethnically diverse people to find an exact (stem cell) match, and that was the tipping point for me,” she said. “Our child Jasper is half-Asian and half-Caucasian.

“I find in Vancouver, there’s quite an ethnic diversity especially in the Asian community — but it’s not quite reflected yet in the cord blood bank, but it could be.”

B.C. Women’s Hospital is the only one in the province — and one of five sites across Canada — to partner with the cord blood bank program, and collections started on Jan. 26.

So far, 410 units have come out of Vancouver — but only about 20% get banked on average from what’s collected, due to sample size and screening.

“The reason why Vancouver is such a good choice is because B.C. has exactly the ethnic diversity ... in terms of getting as many units as a diverse population as we possibly can,” said Dr. Jan Christilaw, B.C. Women’s Hospital president.

The fixation on diverse donations is because a person in need of stem cells is more likely to find a match within their own ethnicity due to protein patterns in the blood, according to Christilaw.

After the baby is born, the cord is taken into an adjacent room and if there are enough usable cells in the sample, and the blood is healthy, it gets donated.

As more samples are taken, the learning trajectory increases, which will lead to a higher success rate of bank donations, Christilaw said.

But there are private banks that will take umbilical cords from the family and hold onto it, she noted, at a considerable cost.

“If you wanted to donate your cord blood, it’s no cost to the family and really no significant inconvenience to the family,” she said.

Dr. Heidi Elmoazzen, director of Canadian Blood Services’ Cord Blood Bank, said traditionally the placenta and umbilical cord are discarded as medical waste.

“A person in need of a stem cell transplant can look within their own family and ... 75% really rely on stem cell donors,” she said. “You’re giving someone the opportunity to potentially save a life.”

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