Once the baby is born, doctors can use the blood left in the umbilical cord, which would otherwise be discarded, in bone marrow transplants.
But because one donation yields a tiny amount of blood, Dr. Colleen Delaney with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center pioneered a method to expand one unit of cord blood in the lab. Her technique allows doctors to grow enough blood cells to transplant them into adults.
The procedure brought Christian Beattle to Seattle from Kansas. His leukemia became a death sentence when his doctors couldn't find a bone marrow donor match.
"They just said, 'That's it. We can't do anything else for you. It's too risky.' And basically just gave me a piece of paper with my odds of surviving," he said. "I had to sit around for weeks and weeks and think, 'There's nothing else that can be done for me."'
Then a friend sent him an article on Delaney's work. Beattle reached out to the doctor, who agreed his form of leukemia was aggressive and requires a transplant.
"About 40 percent of Caucasians can't find a donor," Delaney said. "And if you're someone who's of mixed race or minority background, your chances are much slimmer than that. These patients need to have the same access to life-saving therapy."
Cord blood doesn't have to match as closely, and works for almost anyone.
"We have now perfected this to where we can give patients oodles of stem cells derived from one unit of cord blood," Delaney said. "And what that's meant for someone like Christian, he engrafted in less than 10 days."
"Engrafted" means Beattle's white blood cells recovered. He was up and leaving the hospital in the fraction of the time of a traditional transplant patient.
"I believe this is equally good, if not better, just for how fast it takes hold," he said.
Beattle is just the 19th person to receive a lab-expanded cord blood transplant. Delaney hopes the number of recipient grows.
"You give life to your child, but at the same time, the blood that's left in that umbilical cord can be collected," Delaney said. "And we know there are the same life-saving stem cells in there that can be used for a bone marrow transplant and to save someone else's life."