"His mom told us how he had the transplant and how it saved his life," Portantino said. "It inspired my wife and I to say that if we had another child, we'd save that child's cord blood."
When in 2001 Portantino and his wife had a daughter, Bella, they sought to save the material from the umbilical cord for use by others, but were frustrated. Private blood banks would allow families to store frozen cord blood for their own relatives, but "we found out there was no public infrastructure in place to accept a donation," he said.
Cord blood contains plasma rich in stem cells. It has been used to address various forms of anemia and cancer, according to the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Stephen Feig, a now-retired pediatric oncologist who played a key role in Serwin's recovery, said the cells are also valuable for research purposes.
The federal government has established a cord blood bank in Minneapolis through the National Marrow Donor Program.
Yet cord blood treatment was not on the medical radar in California when Serwin was first diagnosed with leukemia. His parents put him through an intensive round of chemotherapy. The young boy appeared to be getting better. But after he came off the regimen, the leukemia returned with a vengeance, Flanz said.
Serwin was essentially living at UCLA Medical Center, watching movies on a hospital VCR while doctors searched for another option.
As Flanz recalls it, Feig located cord blood material that they could use from a New York woman. While the material did not match Jordan's blood type, it did share several genetic markers with Serwin, meaning the chances of success were high.