When a baby is born, medical professionals routinely throw away a sick child's potential lifeline.
Dr. Hugh Miller of Obstetrix Medical Group, 5301 E. Grant Road, is working to establish the upside of storing umbilical cord blood, which contains stem cells that doctors may someday be able to use to heal a variety of medical conditions.
Miller, Cord Blood Registry and the Save the Cord Foundation created the Newborn Possibilities Program. Cord Blood Registry processes and stores cord blood stem cells, for babies born after high-risk deliveries, for use in future treatments.
Miller chose participants by establishing an algorithm to identify pregnant mothers whose fetuses were at risk of developing cerebral palsy and other neurological problems.
Between 2009 and 2011, the program selected 1,200 babies. Cord Blood Registry pays for the cord blood collection, processing and storage in the registry's stem cell processing and storage facility. Costs can be prohibitive for parents who want to store cord blood. Banking costs about $2,000 initially, then between $100 and $200 a year.
Marana resident Jessica Schaefer, whose 2-year-old son, Logan, is participating in the study, is eager to discover the treatment's potential.
A subsequent study has been crucial for Schaefer, a 36-year-old single mother who also has a 17-year-old daughter. Logan is autistic and has cerebral palsy and needs such constant treatment that Schaefer has no time to work.
The study pays for Schaefer and her son to fly to Augusta, Ga., every three months to see a specialist and receive treatments. The double-blind nature of the study means she can't be certain whether or not Logan is receiving cord blood treatments, because it's possible he's been given placebos.
Treatment consists of syringe-injected infusions of cord blood or placebos, followed by evaluations three months later. Children who received a placebo during the initial treatment receive the cord blood afterward. Researchers follow up by evaluating the kids' neurological development and motor skills.
"To be honest, when I had my son I never thought that there was going to be anything wrong with him, healthwise," Schaefer said.
"He was born 10 weeks early. I never considered that he might have cerebral palsy or autism. His cerebral palsy is a more mild form, not a severe form. He's behind developmentally. I never knew he was going to need any of these things, but I'm thankful I made the choice to undergo the program."
Logan goes through occupational, physical, feeding and behavioral therapies. Schaefer used to work as a medical assistant. These days, she and her family get by on a combination of child support and public assistance.
"Some months we don't even have maybe $20," she said. "It's very hard. If my son goes to the hospital I have to buy food every day for me. They used to supply parents with a meal, but they don't do that anymore."
Some kids affected by cerebral palsy suffer cognitive problems; many have normal IQs but face physical limitations.
"These are problems that are directly related to central nervous system injuries that potentially could be treated in a way that we have never been able to treat them before," Miller said.
Cord blood is so effective because it's an exact match for the person being treated, Miller said. He added that in studies with animals, stem cells have been able to find injured areas and repair them "in a precise way, unlike anything we've seen."
Miller said it's too early to come to definitive conclusions about what cord blood can do for those dealing with medical issues, but he sees potential in the research.
"The hope was that cord blood could take a child that could barely walk and bring them right back to the state where they're not only walking, but running and having some normal semblance of life," Miller said.
Cord blood is uniquely suited to treat the person to whom it belongs.
"Cord blood is a very selective resource, like any blood," Miller said. "You can't just give anybody anyone else's cord blood. It has to be a careful match. The best possibility you can imagine is to give someone their own cord blood back. In order to do that, you have to know when they're delivered that there will be a problem in the future."
Miller said two clinical trials, including the one in which Logan is participating, are studying the effects of cord blood treatments.
"If either of these randomized trials ultimately show the benefit of cord blood, this will be groundbreaking. We're talking about the difference between a child being able to walk versus (use wheelchairs) or be incontinent, or any number of other serious deficits," he said. "If cord blood can be demonstrated to be of value in the group of kids that we've targeted, that's a game changer."
Logan's development has been slow but steady. He learned to walk just before he turned 2. In the past few weeks he's started talking for the first time.
"He does a lot of yelling," Schaefer said. "He doesn't know how to communicate. He argues with my daughter, just as any 2- or 3-year-old does."
Schaefer said participation in the program and the clinical study gives her more hope for Logan's future.
"To be in this program helped me so much, because I'm a single mom right now raising him by myself and I'm not able to work, with the amounts of appointments he has," Schaefer said. "We're on a very fixed income, and without them helping me and being kind enough to pay for airfare, I don't know what I'd do. Hopefully this helps his future."
"I never knew he was going to need any of these things, but I'm thankful I made the choice to undergo the program."
Contact reporter Phil Villarreal at 573-4130 or email@example.com