British Columbia

Cord blood bank for premature babies makes life-saving research gains in first year

B.C. Women's Preemie Biobank has already made significant research gains since it opened last August, but wants more cord blood donors to help fuel life-saving research to help preterm babies, like Toby and Leo Donkin.

B.C. Women's Hospital's Preemie Biobank is the first of its kind in Canada

Amie Donkin donated her twins' umbilical cord blood to the Preemie Biobank after they were born at 30 weeks gestation. Now 34 weeks, baby Leo is thriving and recently started breastfeeding. (CBC/Margaret Gallagher)

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.

Amie Donkin, pictured here with Toby, wanted to donate her twins' cord blood as way to give back to the hospital and help future families. (CBC/Margaret Gallagher)

Life-saving research

"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."

Dr. Pascal Lavoie helped found B.C. Women's Preemie Biobank in 2018. (CBC/Margaret Gallagher)

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."

UBC PhD candidate Christina Michalski works with Dr. Lavoie to process and store samples, and conduct research on infections in premature babies.

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. 

Cord blood samples are processed at B.C. Women's Hospital and frozen for long-term storage. The de-identified material can be used in future research. (CBC/Margaret Gallagher)

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.

Cash infusion

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.

July 29, 2019 Researchers at BC Women's Hospital want parents to consider donating their newborns' umbilical cord blood to the hospital's Preemie Biobank. Margaret Gallagher visited the "BC Women's Preemie Biobank" and met two of the tiny donors. 7:46

About the Author

Margaret Gallagher is the reporter for On the Coast and the host of Hot Air on CBC Radio One.

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