Cord blood bank for premature babies makes life-saving research gains in first year
B.C. Women's Hospital's Preemie Biobank is the first of its kind in Canada
When you're giving birth, giving blood might be the last thing on your mind, especially if you're delivering pre-term.
But Amie Donkin didn't hesitate to say yes when she was asked to donate her sons' Toby and Leo's umbilical cord blood immediately following their early arrival at B.C. Women's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in June.
She was 30 weeks pregnant when her membrane broke.
"Honestly, these little boys, five to 10 years ago, probably wouldn't have survived," says Donkin.
She credits research in neonatal care with giving her babies a healthy start; research that prompted the timely introduction of antibiotics to help fight infections that place pre-term babies at high risk.
"We thought it was just a beautiful opportunity to give back to the hospital and for future families for research."
Only one in Canada
B.C. Women's Hospital's Preemie Biobank is the first of its kind in Canada.
Dr. Pascal Lavoie is a neonatologist and the driving force behind the biobank, which has been able to focus on health issues unique to pre-term babies, including their vulnerability to infection.
"There is no way you're going to understand this by studying an adult immune system," Lavoie said. "Babies are different, their cells react differently. That's why cord blood is vital."
Preemies often excluded from cord banks
Cord blood contains stem cells, which have a unique ability to grow into different kinds of cells for use in research and the treatment of diseases like leukemia. Canadian Blood Services runs four umbilical cord banks, including one at B.C. Women's Hospital.
But pre-term babies are usually excluded because of the low volume of blood, and because of the often stressful circumstances of these babies' arrivals.
Pre-term babies can weigh as little as 500 grams at birth.
More donors welcome
Eighty-five infants born at less than 33 weeks gestation have contributed cord blood since the bank opened in August 2018. Lavoie said that represents about 30 per cent of the high-risk babies born at the hospital last year.
He's encouraged by the fact that over 90 per cent of the families they approached agreed to donate. The key is being able to get the word out to potential donors while the cord blood is still viable. Cord blood must be collected within 15 minutes of birth.
Lavoie says that once permission is obtained from parents, cord blood collection is non-invasive. The team takes the umbilical cord and placenta and processes it for frozen storage and research. The samples are "de-identified" for privacy reasons and added to a general pool.
Working with PhD students from UBC, the biobank has already made research gains.
"We found out what happens inside cells that turns off immune responses in premature babies," Lavoie said.
"That's really exciting because we are getting closer to understanding how we can fix it."
The biobank will be able to continue its research into the foreseeable future. The federal government recently granted the project just over $1 million to help fund research over the next five years.