Canadian specialists are meeting in Ottawa this weekend to discuss the need for a national cord blood bank to keep cells used to treat childhood cancers like leukemia.

Cord blood stem cells are taken from the umbilical cord at birth and can be frozen indefinitely.

The cells are fast becoming a preferred alternative to bone marrow transplants for children with certain cancers. Since the stem cells are more flexible than bone marrow, the match between donor and recipient does not have to be as close.

The vast majority of cord blood used for transplants in Canada comes from donors in other countries because Canada lacks a national, taxpayer-supported cord blood bank.

Outside of Montreal and Edmonton, most cord blood collection in the country is done commercially, with parents paying upwards of $1,000 in annual fees to store their child's cord blood for their exclusive use.

Canada needs a national, public cord blood bank, said Dr. Martin Champagne of Ste-Justine Hospital in Montreal.

"We believe that it is very important that we also contribute to the international registry of cord blood banks," Champagne said.

This weekend, Canadian Blood Services will recommend that it be given funding to establish such a bank.

Dr. Cliff Librach, who runs the private Create Cord Blood Bank in Toronto, also supports a public bank, but said some parents will want to keep their child's cord blood.

"If they want to bank those cells for themselves, for their own family, then they should have the right to do that," Librach said.

When Lucas Ditecco of Ste. Julie, Que., received two bouts of chemotherapy and a cord blood stem cell transplant for an acute form of leukemia two years ago, the cord blood cells came from a baby boy in Germany.

"That mother, when she delivered her baby, she gave life to two persons," said Lucca's mother, Marie-France Langlais.

A national cord blood bank won't mean every child's cord blood is saved and stored. Experts said a representative sample of 10,000 donations from the country's diverse population would probably be enough for use in Canada and international recipients when there is a match.