Print Issue: March 6, 2003
Babies' First Act Of Charity May Resolve Stem-Cell Moral Dilemma
By Priscilla Greear
ATLANTA-They're striking chords of hope for people around the world in need of stem cell transplants. And they're calling it a baby's first act of charity, as with parents' permission blood extracted from a newborn's umbilical cord is donated to a public blood bank.
And what's so precious about umbilical cord blood, usually thrown out as medical waste? It's a rich source of stem cells that can be used as an effective alternative to bone marrow transplants, and for medical research.
Babies for Life Foundation is believed to be the first organization in the nation that facilitates umbilical cord donations not only in Georgia but in other states as well.
"It occurred to us that in reality this was a very large act of charity that started with the parents on behalf of the baby. We encourage our donors to put in the baby's book that this is their first act of charity to the world. Teach them young," said Dr. Gerry Sotomayor, who oversees this donation process.
"People need to know that their baby can save lives now, and that public cord blood banks are free, available and convenient. It just makes sense from both a faith and moral perspective, as well as a medical one, to donate your child's blood for the public registries."
The cord blood, with anywhere from a half million to a million stem cells, is shipped by BFL to the Cryobanks International blood bank in Orlando, Fla. Those units deemed usable after testing are registered with The Caitlin-Raymond International Registry at the University of Massachusetts and other public registries. They are made available for research and for the 500,000 people worldwide needing either stem cell or bone marrow transplants. Currently there are 76,000 units of umbilical cord blood worldwide.
According to BFL, umbilical cord stem cell transplants are a less painful and more effective treatment than bone marrow transplants to treat many cancers and various other diseases. Furthermore, cord blood provides an equally effective, more abundant source of stem cells for research than do embryos, without the moral conflict. Embryos, which are human life, are destroyed to obtain stem cells.
A five-day-old embryo has about 140 cells; most will form the placenta and the rest are stem cells. The Catholic Church opposes any destruction of the embryo as it considers human life sacred from the moment of conception. The church, however, supports research using ethically extracted stem cells, such as those provided by the donation of umbilical cord blood. With their ability to transform themselves into various types of tissue, stem cells are believed to have the potential to one day be used to treat illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.
As persons age, their stem cells become less adaptable for research.
Sotomayor, an obstetrician/gynecologist in private practice, began this collection process in Atlanta through the establishment of the Babies for Life Foundation last March. And his collection hub for carrying out his mission is the "gold mine" of Northside Hospital in Atlanta, which is one of the largest women's services community hospitals in the nation with over 16,000 births yearly from a diversity of ethnic groups.
The collection process has also begun at various other North Georgia hospitals and Sotomayor has spoken on it at a meeting before all Department of Health directors in Georgia, and to hospital CEOs, with a goal to have more hospitals use the program. He encourages expectant women to ask their hospitals to join BFL. "Right now we're mostly in Northside because it's the largest, but we are expanding to other health care systems because everybody wants to participate."
He said that participating nurses from labor and delivery have been enthusiastic and grateful for the opportunity to help, while parents involved have expressed a "sincere desire" to promote it to other expectant couples.
A native of Puerto Rico, Sotomayor said that Latinos, African-Americans and Asians have been particularly enthusiastic givers, after they learn there is a substantial need for givers from among these groups.
"They're all very happy, very content and very glad they did it. The bottom line is if we all cooperate and we can create a sufficiently large inventory of stem cells that have been ethically collected, we will have enough stem cells to meet the worldwide requirement," said Sotomayor. "Currently the umbilical cord, the blood and the placenta are wasted. (They are discarded as) medical byproducts and it's because of a lack of knowledge of the uses and sometimes (a) lack of resources. That's why we're here to fill in the gap."
The foundation currently collects an average of about 100 units monthly and hopes to eventually reach over 1,000. In addition to the medical uses, the foundation receives $43 for each transplantable unit from the blood bank. All proceeds will go to an endowment to benefit the medically under-served and poor. For example, the proceeds will help the annual health fair for Hispanic women, "Dia de la Mujer Latina," which Sotomayor also founded. But for now the biggest need is for money to enable the nonprofit organization to plant roots and grow.
The physician, a parishioner at All Saints Church, Dunwoody, conceived the idea in 2001 when President Bush ruled that federal funds would only be used for medical research on already established embryonic stem cell lines. The media "skewed" the issue, Sotomayor said, by depicting embryos as the only viable source from which to obtain stem cells for research. So he wrote a short letter to The Wall Street Journal and other publications simply stating that there are other sources of stem cells than embryos and proposing the collection of umbilical cord blood to obtain them in an ethical manner that did not destroy life.
He received a flurry of feedback, including an invitation from the Florida blood bank, a fully accredited blood bank already involved in storing umbilical cord blood, to partner with him.
"I explained to them that I work at Northside Hospital, which is the largest community hospital in the nation in terms of women's services. . . and I have been there for 18 and a half years. I know the community well and was able to maybe bring in some possibility of establishing a program at Northside."
He and his wife, Vivian, spent hours in prayer discerning the matter before establishing BFL.
The nonprofit was established with a unique mission to educate people on the benefit of umbilical cord stem cells and stem cell transplants, and to coordinate between the donors and physicians, hospitals and labs, for the collection and transport of the units to the blood bank. Articles of incorporation were developed, four employees were recruited, plus about 50 volunteers. The motto in their Northside Hospital office space is "Trust in God + Constant Prayer + Hard Work = Results." The bank gives some units up to researchers, who may never use the stem cells for cloning or other unethical purposes.
Persons are encouraged to read about umbilical cord stem cell donations in their doctors' offices or to call the foundation. They will be sent information, authorization packets and a questionnaire, to allow the foundation to differentiate between those who should give to public registries and those who should store in private banks. In a small minority of cases where there is a severe medical risk in a family, such as a child with leukemia, a donor is encouraged to privately store the unit of umbilical cord blood for possible need in the family. BFL will facilitate the private storage of the unit for free with the foundation's blood bank.
For the majority of people who have no medical risk, the lab sends a collection kit with all materials necessary to take to the hospital on the day of the baby's delivery. For those living outside Atlanta, paperwork must be completed by the 27th week of the pregnancy. As the newborn baby is handed to the parents at delivery, the doctor or midwife drains the blood from the umbilical cord, at no risk to the mother or child, and puts it in a biohazard bag that is sent to the blood bank. The stem cells are immediately extracted and quarantined until lab work from the mother and samples from the cord blood have been cleared. Then the quality and quantity are made available to international registries. So far units collected 15 years ago when the process first began with proper storage have been shown to be as good as fresh units, Sotomayor said.
Maria Vigil, a member of St. Brigid's Church in Alpharetta, has been impressed with how easy it was to sign up and how organized the donation process is.
"The Babies for Life cord donation process doesn't take time away from my family and has allowed me to use my God-given vocation as a mother to serve not only the pro-life ministry, but possibly to save another life through the stem cell research BFL makes possible," she said. "I think those in Hispanic, African-American and Asian ministries need to be aware of this opportunity to donate cord blood. I feel called to tell as many of my Hispanic brothers and sisters about this and utilize this as an evangelization tool to present the church's teachings on the sanctity of all human life."
Moral and medical education on the issue is another major emphasis, and as Archbishop John F. Donoghue recently granted approval of the foundation as an official Catholic organization, materials are being distributed in parishes and Sotomayor has teamed up with Father John Shramko and Clark-Atlanta University biologist Dave Collart, Ph.D., to give talks around the archdiocese on stem cell research and human cloning. The director has also given talks through the Catholic Medical Association.
For those who could benefit from either bone marrow or stem cell transplants, Sotomayor said that using umbilical cord stem cells involves less likelihood of rejection, requires fewer resources, and is less painful, is 20 percent cheaper and is at least 80 percent effective. And only three to five donors are needed to one potential recipient to find a blood match, compared to 20-30 bone marrow donors per one recipient. Sotomayor noted that one of the greatest proponents of research on embryos created in in vitro fertilization clinics, Dr. John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University, retracted his position last year, according to an article in the LifeIssues newsletter, saying that umbilical cord stem cells may have greater therapeutic potential than embryonic stem cells.
"Embryonic stem cells provide just a handful of little cells for research, but umbilical cord blood provides not only research but treatment options available right on the spot . . . It's a God-sent gift that we're getting there," Sotomayor continued. "They have what is called more cell plasticity. Embryonic stem cells are not any better, umbilical cord (stem cells) are better. And more abundant and more available and more ethical in terms of collection."
In so-called "therapeutic cloning," which can be done during embryonic research, the fertilized egg's nucleus is inserted into another cell. Of this he said, "No cloning should be allowed, period. There are just too many moral and ethical issues. It's just experimental, like a Frankenstein lab."
After its first year of full operation, the foundation is applying for grants and needs support.
"Currently we need to expand the foundation and we are in need of financial donors to help cover the operating expenses," said Sotomayor, who has been funding the project for 18 months.
But he has also experienced the fruits of sacrifice, and recalled the inspiration he received when he heard Mother Teresa talk in Atlanta.
"It is very fulfilling that God has given me the talent to see the need of not just my Latino community, but also the capability of solving a major ethical dilemma by providing an alternative to embryonic stem cells (and) at the same time contribute to saving lives and minimizing suffering on a worldwide basis. All (this is) done in the name of charity following Mother Teresa's role. I always quote her-when you're doing charity give until it hurts."
For more information, contact Babies for Life Foundation, 1100 Johnson Ferry Road, Center 2, Suite 195, Atlanta, GA 30342-1611. Visit www.babiesforlife.org or call (404) 303-9187.