What is a cord blood transplant?

Cord blood transplants can do amazing things for people with very difficult diseases. But it’s important to remember that cord blood transplantation is a potentially life-saving but highly risky procedure, and is only used to treat the sickest patients, including one recently here at the University of Minnesota diagnosed with both HIV and leukemia.

A cord blood transplant does complex work inside the body, and preparation and recovery is hard work for both the patient and the doctor.

So it might be surprising to know that despite such a transplant being one of modern medicine’s most amazing treatments, the procedure itself is quite simple when compared to major surgery like a joint replacement or solid organ transplant.

Watch a cord blood transplant go from deep freeze to the patient’s bedside

To prepare for a cord blood transplant, a patient will undergo procedures to destroy the diseased cells and the immune system to prepare for the infusion of healthy cells. Commonly, this is done through chemotherapy and radiation therapy. These are important steps, because without some method of lowering the immune system’s defenses, it would attack the incoming cells and make the transplant’s success difficult.

On the day of the infusion, the cord blood is prepared for transplant by lab specialists. It is thawed, processed, and put in a bag that looks similar to one for an IV medication or a blood transfusion. When the cells are ready, a cooler is used to transport it to the unit where the patient will be infused.

Once in the room, the blood product is infused into the patient through a tube or central line inserted into a vein, usually in the neck or chest. The process takes about 30 minutes.

It is quick, and appears deceptively simple, but it is just one step in a difficult journey for patient and care team.

Following the infusion, the blood-forming cells travel through the body and settle into the bones, creating new marrow. From here, these cells create new blood cells and platelets. This process is called engraftment, and is a critical time in the patient’s recovery.

Patients are closely monitored as their bodies work to build this new immune system and blood cells. The first 100 days following a cord blood transplant are some of the most critical for preventing infection and monitoring recovery.

To learn more about the cord blood and bone marrow transplant program at the University of Minnesota, click here.

To read more about the journey for patients preparing for transplant, click here.

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