By Joe Fahy
8 October 2007
When she considered ways to honor the memory of her husband, Daniel, Carol Berger thought about a lecture or scholarship. But she and her family finally settled on a novel effort to promote the use of stem cells in treating disease.
Mr. Berger, a local attorney known for championing liberal causes, benefited from a stem cell transplant to treat his lymphoma. He died in July 2006 at age 73.
This morning, officials at Magee-Womens Hospital will announce the Dan Berger Cord Blood Program. It is aimed at expanding options for new mothers to bank umbilical cord blood, a rich source of stem cells that can be used to treat certain cancers, sickle cell anemia and immune deficiencies.
The program will inform women about storing cord blood for their family's use or donating it to others or for research. It also will educate patients and health professionals about cord blood banking.
"We believe this is a very unique program in the country in that it addresses the whole collection process," said Dr. Dennis English, Magee's vice president for medical affairs. He said officials hope to significantly increase cord blood collections at the hospital.
"No one else is doing it quite this way," said Mrs. Berger, whose family is making a financial pledge for the new program.
Additional support is expected from UPMC Health Plan and Highmark, Dr. English said.
Other partners in the effort include the Institute for Transfusion Medicine, the parent organization of the Central Blood Bank, and three private cord blood banks: Viacord, CorCell and CBR.
Cord blood can be collected from the umbilical cord and the placenta after a baby is born. Stem cells also can be extracted from bone marrow and the bloodstream.
Stem cell transplants from cord blood have been increasing, particularly in the past few years, Dr. English said. Yet cord blood is discarded following the vast majority of births.
Nationwide, cord blood is stored after about 4 percent of deliveries, he said. In Western Pennsylvania, the figure is just 1.5 percent.
One reason, he said, is that a public banking option hasn't been available locally. And many obstetricians have had little interest in advising patients to use private cord blood banks that store the blood for a fee -- usually, about $1,700 to $2,000 initially and another $100 to $200 per year.
Pennsylvania lawmakers likely will consider legislation that would require doctors to give women information about cord blood banking, Dr. English said. Similar legislation has been adopted in other states, he said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages families to donate cord blood to public banks, if available in the area, to benefit others in need. But the group discourages parents from storing blood at private banks unless they have an older child with a condition that could potentially benefit from a transplant. Cord blood banked privately seldom is used, and therefore wasted, the group noted.
The new program at Magee calls for developing educational materials to inform mothers about cord blood banking several months before they give birth.
Mothers who are interested in storing cord blood for their families could choose to bank it, for a fee, through one of the private companies, Dr. English said.
They also could donate it to the Magee-Women's Research Institute, which focuses its studies on women and infants, or for public use through the Central Blood Bank. Dr. English said the blood bank will work to coordinate its donations through the National Marrow Donor Program, which operates a federally funded U.S. registry of adult donors and cord blood units.
As part of the new Magee program, technicians will be available to collect cord blood following deliveries, Dr. English said.
The program also will hire an educator to discuss public and private cord blood banking with obstetricians, family doctors and midwives, he said.
Efforts also will be made to speak to patients about cord blood banking at health fairs and similar events. Reaching minority populations is especially important, Dr. English said, because blacks are much less likely than whites to find a match through a public cord blood bank. Relatively few specimens for blacks are available.
Mary Halet, manager of cord blood operations for the National Marrow Donor Program, said the new program appears to be designed to educate women ahead of time about the various options available for storing or donating cord blood.
"I think that's really interesting and good advocacy for women's health," she said.
Mrs. Berger said her husband developed lymphoma in the 1990s. An avid Pirates fan and Yale Law School graduate, he had chaired the Western Pennsylvania presidential campaign of Sen. Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and had been general counsel to the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Chemotherapy held the cancer in check for about six years, Mrs. Berger said, and her husband was able to practice law with their son, Joshua, and to go horseback riding, ski and travel.
But when the therapy stopped working, the family frantically searched for other options.
An initial stem cell transplant at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston failed, but a second was successful, Mrs. Berger said.
Stem cells are "the way of the future in medicine," she said, noting that they are used to treat many serious diseases and show potential for curing others.
Joe Fahy can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1722.