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Radford University Nursing Student Urges Others to Save a Life When Giving Life

RADFORD --The answer to treating and possibly curing some of life’s most debilitating diseases and illnesses could someday be found in a common thing we’re all born with—an umbilical cord.

Katia Fiorentino

Working toward becoming a family nurse practitioner, Radford graduate student Katia Fiorentino has dedicated the last two years of her life to the singular mission of raising awareness about the tremendous upside of umbilical cord blood donations.

“When I had my children, I wanted to donate the cord blood and I found the providers were not well informed about donation,” said Fiorentino, who also works full-time at Friendship Health and Rehab Center in Roanoke.

With new discoveries continually being unearthed, medical researchers believe the potential benefits gained from the rich source of stem cells found in umbilical cord blood could be immense.

Stem cells have the potential to differentiate into many different body cells which make them invaluable in the treatment of multiple diseases, according to Fiorentino. Transplants of umbilical cord blood stem cells can be used to treat patients suffering from leukemia, sickle cell anemia, inherited immune and metabolic disorders and other blood disorders.

“Stem cells can be harvested from bone marrow, peripheral blood, embryonic cells and umbilical cord blood,” she said, explaining why umbilical cord blood is particularly desirable. “The hematopoietic stem cells from cord blood are immature and less likely to cause rejection when transplanted, when compared to bone marrow and peripheral blood stem cells.”

Recent developments in cord blood stem cell research have also included uses in the treatment of cerebral palsy, juvenile diabetes, myocardial damage, breast cancer and dementia from Alzheimer’s and other sources.

Free of charge if donated to a public bank, umbilical cord blood donations are simple and painless. Expectant parents should inform their health care providers of their interest in donating their baby's umbilical cord blood either for private storage or public donation.

“The irony of this is that we just throw the cord blood away after most births as if it was medical waste instead of potentially life-saving material,” said Radford instructor Kris Conrad, of the School of Nursing. “As a nurse-midwife, I have collected cord blood for families who either store it for their own baby in a private cord blood bank or to donate the umbilical cord blood to public banks. The collection process is really easy. The cord blood is collected after the baby is born and causes no discomfort or danger to either the mother or the newborn.”

With embryonic stem cell research a focus of political debate for years, Conrad is quick to dispel any direct comparisons.

“Because cord blood is not the same as embryonic stem cells, I don't think there should be any kind of ethical dilemma or debate,” she said. “It is no different than regular blood donation—actually, [it is] less invasive, since the cord blood is collected after the delivery, so no one gets stuck with a needle!”

The potential confusion between embryonic and umbilical cord blood stem cell research further highlights the continued need for increased public awareness and education on the issue, said Conrad.

“Even those people who are opposed to embryonic stem cell research should know that the stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood are not collected until the mother and newborn are finished using the placenta and umbilical cord,” she said. “There is no conflict there.”

Speaking at a medical research conference in Washington, D.C., Fiorentino embraced the opportunity to further raise national awareness of the cord blood donation initiative. Her dedication has caught Conrad’s eye.

“I am so impressed with Katia's level of professionalism and her intellectual capabilities,” said Conrad. “To be able to present her work at a national meeting is just fantastic. I am thrilled she is working to educate midwives, physicians, nurses and the public on this important and life-saving issue.”

According to Fiorentino, continued efforts to expand education and awareness of free cord blood donations can only help improve chances of accelerating research and perhaps save lives.

“I hope to spread the word,” she said, “and prevent the waste of umbilical cord blood.”

Additional information on umbilical cord blood donations can be found at the National Marrow Donor Program and Cryobanks International.

July 22, 2010
Keith Hagarty; 540-831-7749

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