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Banking on Life: How a baby’s cord blood could help a child cancer patient

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - It's probably crossed the minds of all parents once or twice. What if my child was diagnosed with cancer?  One Tennessee Valley family is facing that challenge right now.

In a remarkable twist, there's a chance the family's newest member, a brand new baby, could be the one to help her older half-brother get well.  How?  Cord blood.

The family's story begins at the end of Erin Bloxham-Curtis's pregnancy.  Just weeks from giving birth, she, her husband Russ and stepsons Houston and Grayson were all focused on welcoming a new baby girl.

Then, the focus shifted.  Grayson developed sudden, severe pains.  At the hospital, doctors found and removed a mass in his stomach.  He was rushed to St. Jude in Memphis.

"The toughest part of the whole thing was the unknown," Bloxham-Curtis recalled. "We literally got a diagnosis of we don't know what this is, they took it out, and within a 36 hour time-frame we were dropping everything to be on the road to go to St. Jude."

During the crisis, a nurse noticed Bloxham-Curtis was pregnant and suggested something many expectant parents may have heard of but know little about - cord blood banking.  After quick research and with Erin's due date looming, the family signed up with Alabama's first cord blood bank -- Southern Cord.

According to the company's founder Chakri Deverapalli, stem cells from a baby's umbilical cord can replicate -- to repair or even replace parts of the human body.

The FDA has already approved using stored cells to treat many different ailments, including cancer.  As a result, private companies (see here, here and here) have popped up nationwide, providing collection, storage and banking services to parents.  Often though, these services come at a steep cost.

Deverapalli wants to change that.

"Why should something that can save lives be only affordable to a few?" Deverapalli said.

In response to that question, Southern Cord charges up-front registration and collection fees that total just under $1,500. There's also a $100 annual storage fee.  When the big day came, the Curtis family took a box provided by Southern Cord to the hospital. The kit contained everything needed for the collection of baby Ella Grace's cord blood.

Bloxham-Curtis's physician collected the blood in a sterile bag. It was then sealed in a larger pouch and shipped.

Now at home, the Curtis family is waiting. More tests are needed at St. Jude to determine exactly what kind of cancer Grayson has. Once it's known, Ella Grace's cord blood will be tested to make sure it's a match.

As Deverapalli explained to WHNT News 19, the only 100% match for a baby's cord blood is the baby itself. There aren't any guarantees for other family members. Half-siblings however, along with siblings, parents and even grandparents -- are all possible matches.

"The odds are going to be high, if it's within the family," Deverapalli said.

If Ella Grace's cord blood is a match, doctors can form a treatment plan.  For now, Grayson and his family are spending as much time together as possible, taking their cues from Grayson, who continues to smile in the face of the unknown.

"We just put our faith in God... and now we just put one foot in front of the other," Russ Curtis, Grayson's father, said.

The family will head back to St. Jude on February, 16th.  Doctors will be looking then for any sign of cancer regrowth.