The umbilical cord is a familiar term for most people, whether or not they have seen one or know what it actually is. Other common names for it are birth cord, navel string, or its Latin name, Funiculus Umbilicalis, but its function remains the same no matter what you call it. In placental mammals, it is a cordlike structure of tissue that travels from the mother’s placenta to the developing embryo or fetus and is responsible for three primary functions during fetal development; supplying oxygen, delivering nutrients, and withdrawing depleted nutrients, waste, and blood rich in carbon dioxide. Understanding what the umbilical cord does and its purpose for fetal development can be helpful knowledge if you want to know why more and more parents choose to store or donate their baby’s umbilical cord stem cells.
What Is The Umbilical Cord Made Of?
The umbilical cord is made of mucoid connective tissue referred to as Wharton’s jelly, which is a gelatinous substance that protects the blood vessels inside. It forms around five weeks after conception and is made up of one vein and two arteries which are responsible for both supplying and carrying away blood to and from the fetus. The cells that compose Wharton’s jelly also contain several stem cell genes in the blood, which can be useful in treating certain diseases and damaged tissue in adults. In humans, the average length for an umbilical cord is about 60 centimeters and connects directly from the fetus at the abdomen to the placenta, located in the uterus of the mother.
Functions Of The Umbilical Cord
So, what does the umbilical cord do? As we previously mentioned, the umbilical cord has three primary functions during fetal development. It is essentially the lifeline between the mother and the developing child as it is responsible for supplying oxygen, delivering nutrients, and removal of waste. For a better understanding, let’s break down each function:
1. Oxygen Supply
The first function of the umbilical cord is to supply the embryo with oxygen since it has not yet developed lungs nor does it have a source to acquire it while in the womb. A fetus does not “breathe” in this sense, so it must receive ample amounts of oxygen elsewhere. This is done via blood rich in oxygen from the placenta, which is separate from the mother’s. This blood travels through the umbilical vein directly to the fetus’ developing liver, which then splits off inside the body, one being a portal vein directly to the heart.
2. Nutrient Supply
Alongside oxygenated blood, the placenta also transfers nutrients in the blood to the unborn baby through the umbilical vein. These nutrients come from the mother’s blood as it passes through the placenta and into the umbilical cord. The primary nutrients supplied are glucose, lactic acid, amino acids, fatty acids, and ketones, all of which are necessary for energy and growth during development. Before the umbilical cord and placenta form, the embryo relies on the uterine lining for necessary nutrients and oxygen after conception.
3. Waste Removal
As enriched blood enters the fetus, it must also be circulated out. This is the function of the two umbilical arteries. Deoxygenated blood carries depleted nutrients away from the fetus and back into the placenta, where it is then circulated into the mother’s system and eventually eliminated. After the blood has passed through the heart, it contains carbon dioxide, which is usually oxygenated by the lungs once the baby is born. However, in this case, goes back to the umbilical cord, where blood and nutrient flow are repeated for the remainder of gestation.
Why The Umbilical Cord Is Important
After birth, the umbilical cord is no longer necessary for survival as the newborn takes its first breaths, which then opens and expands the lungs and begins the normal process of blood flow in the heart. However, that does not mean that the organ has to be disposed of. The blood within the umbilical cord is rich in stem cells, and that is why so many families choose to preserve their baby’s umbilical cord blood via a family stem cell bank such as CellSave. If plans are not made to collect and save your baby’s cord blood, the umbilical cord and all of its valuable stem cells are simply thrown away.
The purpose of the umbilical is to provide the necessary components for a fetus’ growth and development while in the womb. But after birth, the question goes from what does the umbilical cord do to what can the blood within it do? As research surrounding cord blood and cord tissue banking has increased, more parents are learning the benefits of umbilical cord stem cell collection. Cord blood banking allows for preservation of your baby’s umbilical cord blood for possible future treatment in conditions such as leukemia and other non-genetic blood diseases. The umbilical cord is no doubt a powerful tool in the creation of life, but it can also be useful for saving lives as well.