Cord blood is a source of a second chance at life

Weston Kenney |

Jessica Kister has vivid memories of the day she received the gift that would give her new life.

It was Valentine's Day. Kister, then 12 years old, was feeling "as sick as a dog." She was at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center, about to undergo a cord blood transplant. Just four years prior, Kister was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. Doctors later discovered the chemotherapy had killed her bone marrow, and it wasn't growing back on its own -- part of a condition otherwise known as myelodysplastic syndrome.

Kister's two sisters weren't matches to donate marrow, so her oncologist at Cardinal Glennon suggested a cord blood transplant. Just a few years prior, Dr. Donna Wall had started the St. Louis Cord Blood Bank at Cardinal Glennon.

"I had all the trust in the world," said Kister, who's now 27 and been given a clean bill of health. "I remember the staff was buzzing -- they were all excited as they injected the cord blood into my central line. It had a creamed-corn smell -- that was from a preservative."

Next year, the St. Louis Cord Blood Bank will mark its 20th anniversary. It is one of the largest public cord blood banks in the world, according to Kathy Mueckl, nurse coordinator and one of the founding staff. More than 2,500 units have been distributed in 34 countries. The donations have treated more than 80 diseases in adults and children -- leukemia, multiple myeloma and other immune deficiencies.

Cord blood yields adult stem cells obtained from the umbilical cord -- a lifeline of nourishment from mother to child. No one is harmed in the process of obtaining them. The Catholic Church supports the use of stem cells obtained from adult tissue, bone marrow, muscle, fat, nerves and similar sources.

The bank receives an average of 30-70 donations a day from 27 partnering hospitals, 17 in Missouri and 10 in Illinois. When it started, the system simply was "babies helping babies," said Mueckl. Now, nearly 60 percent of donations are used for treating adults.

In 2013, the bank was licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to manufacture and distribute cord blood-derived stem-cell products, making it the first such blood bank in the region; it's now one of five in the world to have this distinction.

Data analyst Meghan Wencher donated her son's cord blood at his birth. She was 21 and didn't know anything about the procedure until a nurse at the hospital told her. Two years later, she got a call that her son was a possible match for someone needing a transplant.

"I thought, 'Wow, my 2-year-old son could be a life-saving treatment for someone,'" Wencher recalled.

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