Smiles spread across the room as John Armitage, chief executive officer of the Oklahoma Blood Institute, announced the launch of the only umbilical cord blood bank in Oklahoma and the 25th in the world.
“This is a continuation of work we've been doing. Research has been taking place for many years. But this is a big deal and it's very exciting,” Armitage said during the Wednesday announcement.
After more than three decades of collecting blood for people in need of transfusions, Armitage said, collecting umbilical cord blood is the next step for OBI.
Unlike embryonic stem cell research, which has been controversial and outlawed in Oklahoma because it involves destruction of human embryos, umbilical cord research has been taking place for years and uses umbilical cords naturally released from a woman's body after delivery of a baby.
Linda Dixon, OBI cord blood manager, who has 25 years of experience as a labor and delivery nurse, said the collection of umbilical cord blood is simple and painless.
After delivery and separation of the umbilical cord from the baby, the mother's physician or nurse will use a syringe to collect blood from the cord. Donation won't change the delivery process and will only be performed in an uncomplicated delivery with a healthy mother and baby after the mother has blood testing and gives her written consent, Dixon said.
“The blood from the umbilical cord is rich in stem cells. But it's blood that's usually discarded as waste after delivery,” Dixon said.
The blood can be used to treat more than 75 diseases, including leukemia, lymphoma, anemia, diabetes, and heart and organ failure.
“We're a long way away from creating a new liver,” Armitage said. “But we're on the cutting edge of therapy. We're reprogramming what cells can do.”
Collected umbilical cord blood will go to an OBI lab where the stem cells will be extracted. The blood will be stored until a patient with a matching blood type is found, Armitage said.
“These cells are at the basic level of repair,” Armitage said. “They haven't been exposed; they've been preserved so when they are placed in a host body, they act as if it's their own. They go to work helping to make tissue strong again.”
In the short term, the cells will strengthen the host body, but in the long run it could save it. That's the vision that has caused state Rep. John Enns, who attended Wednesday's announcement, to be an advocate of umbilical stem cell research since he was a professor at Northern Oklahoma College in Enid.
In 2004, heavy equipment Enns was using on his farm rolled over, breaking his back and leaving him paralyzed.
Enns said since his spinal cord injury is not a “complete injury,” meaning he can still feel pain, he is not a candidate for an umbilical cord stem cell transplant. Should that change, Enns said, he will use the procedure to help heal his injuries.
In 2005, the federal Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act established a national cord blood inventory program.
Since then, cord blood has been donated to laboratories and banks for research, and has been used for private transfusions back to mothers who donated the blood when they had a need arise, Dixon said.
Public transfusions, or those that can go from a consenting mother to a stranger in need, have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in Oklahoma. Researchers at OBI plan to send a proposal to the FDA.
Armitage said the blood bank is especially useful in Oklahoma due to its large Native American population and the fact that blood type matches for the group are limited. He said the banks will no doubt be useful to patients of every ethnicity and blood type.
“We want people who would otherwise have to go to New York or California, where these services are offered, to know that Oklahoma is an option. We want folks to know this is a place they can come to get help, too,” Armitage said.
Remodeling work is underway for the bank, expected to open in July at 1001 N Lincoln Blvd.