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Parents Bank Kids' Umbilical Cord Blood

Flyers in upscale doctors' offices portray it as the hot new baby-shower gift: a registry where friends and family chip in almost $2,000 to start// privately banking a newborn's umbilical cord blood, just in case of future illness.

That idea of biological insurance is a long shot that most mothers-to-be can safely ignore, say new guidelines from the nation's pediatricians that urge more parents to donate their babies' cord blood -- so that it might save someone's life today.

The guidelines come as the government begins setting up the first national cord-blood banking system, aiming to prevent some 12,000 deaths a year -- if public banks can compete with marketing-savvy private companies that now house the bulk of the world's preserved cord blood.

Cord blood is rich in stem cells, the building blocks that produce blood -- and the same stem cells that make up the bone-marrow transplants that help many people survive certain cancers and other diseases. But cord blood has some advantages: These younger stem cells are more easily transplanted into unrelated people than bone marrow is, and they can be thawed at a moment's notice, much easier than searching out a bone-marrow donor.

There should be plenty for both private and public banking, says an optimistic Dr. Elizabeth Shpall of the public M.D. Anderson Cord Blood Bank. After all, cord blood from most of the nation's 4 million annual births is thrown away.

Chief hurdles: Improving consumer awareness -- and the small number of hospitals that allow donations.

Her own work illustrates the industry's stark socio-economic contrasts: At Houston's Ben Taub General Hospital, Shpall finds the mostly Hispanic mothers-to-be not only unable to afford private banking -- few have even heard that cord blood has a medical use.

Armed with a $3 million federal grant to improve much-needed minority donations, she is working with Spanish-language TV and ra
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