Mothers who give birth at University Hospitals in Iowa City — and elsewhere — have the option of donating the blood from the umbilical cord to medical research. Dr. Fred Goldman, a U-of-I pediatrics professor, says there’s only an ounce or two of the blood that can be gleaned, but scientists are finding that it’s a very valuable fluid.

The blood is found in the placenta and the umbilical cord and most of the time, it’s discarded when the baby is delivered. “Now, we’ve actually discovered some very important cells within the cord blood and now, many physicians and researchers all around the world are finding new uses for those (cells) every day,” Goldman says.

One potential use is in helping patients who need bone marrow transplants, as he says cord blood can take the place of bone marrow in a transplant. Goldman says about a thousand women have authorized their babies’ cord blood to go to the research program at the U-of-I over the past three years.

“One of the differences between our study and other studies is that the cord blood that we collect is provided to researchers here at the university and around the country free of charge,” Goldman says. “It’s basically to try and promote research in stem cells and stem cell biology.” He says the stem cells taken from cord blood are nicknamed “plastic,” as they can be molded into many other types of cells.

“The science of stem cell biology is just now starting to grow and we find that stem cells can be used for things like heart attacks, strokes,” Goldman says. “We use these things for a process called gene therapy where we’re trying to correct diseases by putting the genes back into these very primitive stem cells that we can find in the cord blood.”

Embryonic stem cells have been the subject of much debate in recent years, but Goldman says it needs to be clear, that’s something entirely different from the stem cells being harvested from cord blood.

“Many people confuse cord blood for embryonic stem cells and it’s not anything similar whatsoever,” Goldman says. “Embryonic stem cells are regulated by federal law and they’re obtained, obviously, in a much different way. Umbilical cord blood is really just blood from the baby that would normally have been discarded.” He says one goal at the U-of-I is to create a statewide cord blood registry, an effort that may be considered for funding in next year’s legislative session.