When Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg began her career in the late 1970s as a clinician treating kids with blood disorders and cancers, no one thought much of cord blood. A lot has changed throughout her career, much in part thanks to her. Kurtzberg performed the first transplant of cord blood to a patient from an unrelated donor at Duke University in 1993, and established a public cord blood bank a few years later.
Recently, she’s started to research using cord blood in a new way — instead of treating children who have undergone radiation or chemotherapy, she’s given cord blood directly to patients through an infusion. Early studies have shown promising evidence that some cells in cord blood might help calm down inflammation in the brain and signal to other brain cells to make new connections, with the potential to treat children with brain injuries, cerebral palsy, and autism. These investigations are still in their early days Kurtzberg, cautions. “People should not count on any of the ongoing research to definitely pan out.” But she’s hopeful for the future. “We have encouraging early data.”