June 9, 2010

Sofie Sneed doesn’t know it yet, but the moment her mom delivered her on June 15, 2009, she did the world a good deed. The cells in the umbilical cord that was her lifeline for nine months became a potential lifesaver for someone else.

Kari Sneed donated her daughter’s stem cell-rich cord blood to the cord blood bank that Saint Luke’s has partnered with.

“It was a great opportunity. It meant my daughter and I could help someone out in an important way,” said Sneed, 27, a kindergarten teacher at Manor Hill Elementary in Liberty, Mo. “There was really no question about whether or not I would do it.”

Reborn identity

Cord blood cells are not cures, but they can help the body heal—from leukemia, sickle-cell anemia, and Severe Combined Immune Deficiency, among many diseases and disorders. Cord blood has all the right ingredients for regenerating the body: red blood cells, white cells, and platelets. But it’s the way these cells are deployed in the body that makes them so valuable.

Cord blood cells are a bit like chameleons: They become what they need to be. Most cells in our bodies are assigned a specific role. A skin cell is a skin cell, for instance, and a muscle cell is a muscle cell.

Cord blood cells, by contrast, are the great adapters. They can be skin cells, muscle cells—whatever is needed.

“Cord blood cells can take on the attributes of other cells under the right conditions,” explained Frederick Lintecum, M.D., an OBGYN who is also on the staff of Saint Luke’s Cancer Institute.

“Let’s say a young boy had leukemia and the chemotherapy wiped out his bone marrow. Cord blood could become a new source of cells to get this child’s body growing again.”

All of us have some of these “adult” stem cells in our bone marrow, but they are difficult to extract. Cord blood cells, on the other hand, are easily accessible.

Banking for life

Sneed first learned about Saint Luke’s cord blood program from Dr. Lintecum, who was her gynecologist. Saint Luke’s has the only public donation program in the Kansas City area. That means Sneed won’t have to pay to have the cord blood stored.

On Sneed’s delivery day, first came Sofie. Then, immediately after, Dr. Lintecum captured the cord blood. He clamped and cut the umbilical cord, then collected the cells from the placenta through a needle. The entire process took about two minutes.

“The nurses had told me ahead of time what would happen,” said Sneed. “I didn’t feel a thing. I could concentrate all my attention on Sofie.”

Because Saint Luke’s cord blood program is public, Sofie has the most chance of helping someone. Her cord blood is available to anyone in the world who needs it—including her family.

“If your baby’s cord blood is banked, and years from now a family member needs stem cell therapy, the family can check to see whether your baby’s cells are still available,” said Bill Ward, who as Director of Cellular Therapy Services is in charge of Saint Luke’s cord blood program.

Gaining momentum—and mamas

Saint Luke’s knows whether cord blood from its program is being used. Some has already found its way to a child who was born with no immune system.

“It’s such a great feeling knowing I’m possibly helping someone out,” said Sneed. “I didn’t have to do anything extra but a little paperwork, and I could do that ahead of time.”

Saint Luke’s program began last December and is steadily gaining participants like Sneed. She plans to participate again with her next child; her husband, Sam, is all for it. Meantime, Sneed is telling other women about the free program.

“And when she gets a little older,” said Sneed, “I’ll tell Sofie, too.”