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Wharton's jelly has been touted as having promise as a treatment for a number of serious health conditions and diseases. But what it is, exactly, and what does it have to do with cord tissue banking?
 
You may not be aware that Wharton's jelly is unique to pregnancy. What's more, it's a rich source of stem cells that mounting evidence shows may one day play a transformative role in the field of regenerative medicine.
 
In fact, the stem cells from Wharton's jelly can be collected alongside your baby's cord blood and stored as a form of potential treatment or therapy for the future. Here's what you should know about this valuable substance and how it may eventually be used to protect the health of your baby and your family.

What Is Wharton's Jelly?

Wharton's jelly is the main connective tissue found within the umbilical cord – the narrow, tubelike structure that connects a developing fetus with its mother's placenta.

A thick, gelatinous substance made primarily of collagen, its main job is to provide cushioning and protection for the umbilical cord's three blood vessels by preventing the cord from becoming compressed or bent. Wharton's jelly also supports the umbilical vessels' ability to deliver oxygen, blood sugar, and amino acids to a developing fetus [*].
 
Because Wharton's jelly is involved in helping the umbilical cord function effectively, it plays a critical role in supporting a healthy pregnancy, and mounting evidence suggests that the substance may also yield benefits long after birth has taken place.

That's because Wharton's jelly is rich in mesenchymal stem cells (MSC), a type of cord tissue stem cell currently being studied as a potential treatment in more than 350 registered clinical trials [*].

Where Is Wharton’s Jelly Found?

Wharton's jelly is found in the umbilical cord, between the inner membrane of the placenta and the umbilical vessels. Other types of mesenchymal stem cells may be harvested from other areas of the body, including autologous bone marrow concentrate or fat tissue. However, MSCs from Wharton's jelly can only be obtained from the umbilical cord. 
 
This is significant since research suggests that MSCs obtained from Wharton's jelly may be more effective than MSCs taken from adult tissues as a potential health treatment [*]. What's more, they can be obtained both easily and non-invasively after giving birth.

These factors are two reasons why many experts consider MSCs derived from Wharton's jelly to be the gold standard for MSC-based therapies [*].

What Are the Benefits of Wharton’s Jelly and Cord Tissue Banking?

Wharton's jelly is collected as part of cord tissue banking, which is the process of collecting and storing the stem cells from your baby's actual umbilical cord. This is different from cord blood banking, where the stem cells from the cord blood found in your baby's umbilical cord are collected and stored. 
 
The mesenchymal stem cells derived from Wharton's jelly are different than the hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) that come from cord blood. While research on HSCs focuses primarily on blood and immune system disorders, research on MSCs is geared towards connective tissue disorders and regenerative medicine.

In other words, the potential benefits of MSCs from Wharton's jelly are entirely different than those that come from stem cells derived from cord blood.
 
MSCs are currently being studied for their possible use in treating babies as well as siblings or family members in many common diseases that don't yet have a cure. These include: [*]

  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Autism
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Cirrhosis
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Lupus
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Stroke
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Ulcerative colitis

Experts are still learning about the therapeutic effects of MSCs. However, the main benefit of these stem cells is thought to come from their potential to exert reparative, anti-inflammatory, and pain-relieving effects on a wide range of injured tissues [*][*].

For instance, research currently looking at MSCs from Wharton's jelly as a regenerative therapy for heart disease has shown that the cells are capable of growing into heart or blood vessel cells, both of which could potentially be used to repair cardiovascular damage caused by a heart attack [*].

How Are Stem Cells from Wharton’s Jelly Harvested?

Mesenchymal stem cells from Wharton's jelly are part of the cord tissue banking process. Cord tissue banking is different than cord blood banking, however, the two can be performed simultaneously.
 
After giving birth, the umbilical cord is clamped and cut as usual. Next, the cord blood is safely and painlessly extracted from the umbilical cord and then the umbilical tissue is collected. Both the cord blood and cord tissue are transported to a private cord blood bank, where the stem cells are processed and cryogenically stored. There, it remains accessible to your family, should you need to use it in the future.

What Causes Low Wharton’s Jelly?

A few abnormalities can potentially affect the umbilical cord. One possible abnormality is low or absent Wharton's jelly. Low or absent Wharton's jelly is exceedingly rare, with just 10 clinical cases reported between 1985 and 2020, and in some instances, it can be tied to pregnancy loss or stillbirth.

However, there are also reports of healthy babies being born with little or no Wharton's jelly. The reports show that low or absent Wharton's jelly typically isn't discovered until after birth [*]. As a result, the condition isn't treatable during pregnancy.

Is Wharton's Jelly FDA-Approved for Therapy?

All stem cell products are regulated by the Food & Drug Administration, and products and treatments derived from stem cells require FDA approval before they can be administered. Currently, the only stem cells that have been approved for treatment by the FDA are hematopoietic stem cells, which are stem cells obtained from cord blood or bone marrow. Cord blood stem cells have been FDA-approved for use in treating over 80 different diseases and conditions [*].
 
MSCs obtained from Wharton's jelly (or other sources) and related treatments have not yet been approved by the FDA. However, the large number of registered clinical trials currently in progress suggest that stem cells from Wharton's jelly have great promise as potential therapies for many serious health conditions. Because cord tissue stem cells such as MSCs can easily be harvested at the same time as cord blood stem cells, collecting and storing both is worth considering as a valuable form of future treatment options for your family.

The Bottom Line

Wharton's jelly is a unique substance found only in the umbilical cord and is a rich source of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). These cells show significant potential in the field of regenerative medicine and may one day soon be used to treat conditions ranging from heart disease to diabetes, to arthritis, to spinal cord injuries.

Also, the ability of MSCs to suppress the body’s immune response has prompted doctors to use them in tandem with cord blood stem cells to significantly reduce the effects of transplant rejection or Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD) [*].
 
If you're planning to bank your baby’s cord blood, you should also consider banking your baby’s umbilical cord tissue. Saving both cord blood and cord tissue stem cells will give your family access to a wider potential scope of treatment options for your baby, siblings, and other family members.

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