Family Matters

Can Mail-In Menstrual Blood Banks Help Save Lives?

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Menstruation serves an important purpose, clearing the uterus out monthly in order to prepare the womb for a potential pregnancy. We women understand that, but still, bleeding every month down yonder is no one’s idea of fun. But what if that blood could help someone? It just might make the monthly cycle a little less annoying.

Now, news that stem cells found in menstrual blood — along with cells from babies’ umbilical cords — could potentially be incorporated into treatments for stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, kind of puts a different spin on things. (More on Using Stem Cells to Restore Sight)

Cord blood and apparently menstrual blood contain stem cells that have the ability to morph into various kinds of other cells. Because they’re “immunologically immature,” in a transplant they’re able to contribute to cell survival, according to neuroscience researchers from the University of South Florida and three private-sector research groups, Saneron CCEL Therapeutics and Cryo-Cell International in Florida and Cryopraxis, Cell Praxis, BioRio in Brazil.

This is not all just theoretical: stem cells harvested from menstrual blood have successfully differentiated into nerve cells in vitro, or in a laboratory culture. When infused into an animal model of stroke, the stem cells reduced the behavioral impairments observed in the rat stroke model as compared to the control rat.

For one thing, explain the researchers in the journal Cell Transplantation, both blood sources are easy to obtain. I get the umbilical cord blood thing — I even wrote last year about a nationwide mail-in pilot program to encourage more women to donate their babies’ cord blood cells — but menstrual blood? I’m a little fuzzy on how that might be collected in a hygienic sort of way. (More on Time.comSpecial Delivery: Mailing in Your Umbilical Cord Blood)

So I spoke with Julie Allickson, a co-author of the journal paper and vice president of research and development for Cryo-Cell, who explained how it’s done: a cup made of medical-grade silicone is inserted into the vagina, much as a tampon is, on a woman’s heaviest flow day. The cup remains in place for up to three hours, collecting between 10 to 20 milliliters of blood, which is poured into a container in a collection kit Cryo-Cell ships out. It’s then mailed back to the laboratory, where for $499 it’s processed, frozen and stored in what Allickson says is the only existing menstrual blood bank. Additional storage costs $99 per year.

“We are the only one that stores it currently with the hope of being able to use it in the future,” says Allickson, who said she couldn’t divulge how many women have banked their menstrual blood. “You’ve got these cells in the endometrium that are regenerating monthly for women in their reproductive years. They rapidly divide almost every 24 hours and they produce growth factors, and that’s the main mechanism we believe is assisting with repair in animal models.”

Is banking menstrual blood the next big thing? In its favor, neither menstrual blood nor cord blood stem cells are controversial in the way that embryonic stem cells are. No woman I know is too attached to the contents of her unpregnant uterus.

And, point out the researchers, menstrual blood-derived stem cells are a vastly more renewable resource than those harvested from cord blood. The average U.S. woman has 2.1 babies in her lifetime, yet she gets her period close to 500 times in that same span. That’s a lot of wasted stem cells. (More on Sperm-Producing Cells to Treat Type 1 Diabetes)

Lots and lots of details would have to be worked out in order for this to become a reality. And, of course, there’s the ick factor to overcome. Would you really want to be the recipient of stem cells plucked from the contents of a woman’s monthly cycle? If it could save your life, I’ll bet you would.