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'Biological insurance' takes off in SA

Parents are paying to have their babies' stem cells frozen and stored so they can be used to fight future diseases

Sunday 18 May 2003
Jeanne van der Merwe
Sunday Times

Baby Jack Seddon is one of a new breed of South African infants whose parents are prepared to pay close on R10 000 to have their babies' stem cells frozen and stored in a special Belgian bank as "biological insurance" against possible future illness.

Jack's mother, Renee Moodie, had blood drawn from Jack's umbilical cord at his birth five months ago.

He is one of 112 South African babies whose stem cells are being stored in a private blood bank in Belgium in case they or relatives need bone marrow replacements or other stem cell treatments.

These include heart tissue replacement and the treatment of multiple sclerosis.

The treatments are still in an experimental stage.

"As soon as the baby is born, the blood is drawn from the umbilical cord," said Moodie.

"We paid R9 600 to have the blood couriered and the stem cells extracted and frozen.

"Now, if something goes wrong there is some of Jack's genetic material that can be used should he ever need a bone marrow transplant. We won't have to find a donor. After all, Jack is a 21st century baby, and this is 21st century insurance."

Johannesburg mother Birgitt Saunders had umbilical cord blood drawn in February after hearing about the procedure. She and her husband decided to do it for the benefit of their baby.

Said Evan Veldman of Cape Town, who had also used the service: "It was a personal choice to protect the well-being of my daughter. I'm paying the premium for that option."

These families used the only cord blood company registered in South Africa. CryoClinic South Africa, a branch of CryoClinic UK, did its first cord blood extraction in South Africa in January last year.

Extracting infants' cord blood and storing it has become widespread in the US and Europe over the past five years.

Professor Jan Lochner of Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Health Sciences said there were no ethical problems with getting stem cells from blood drawn from umbilical cords.

"Embryos have the highest yield of stem cells, but in order to get them, you have to destroy a potential life, and there are ethical problems with that," he said.

Freezing either umbilical cord blood or the stem cells harvested from the blood has become a lucrative industry in the US, where 16 accredited blood banks are offering these services. There are several similar companies in Europe and Britain.

The companies use recent advances in stem cell research and the potential these have in future as a selling point.

Stem cells, they say, can be used to cure diseases because they can be made to take the form of different cells in the body. Donors' bodies are less likely to reject them and t here is also a greater likelihood of stored stem cells matching donors' relatives.

The R9 600 bill for South Africans for transporting, processing and storing between 150ml and 250ml of blood is less than the R11 000 that most US companies charge. Some US companies also charge around R700 a year for storage.

Stephen Purcell, medical adviser to CryoClinic South Africa, said the Belgian laboratory contracted to extract and store the stem cells complied with European Union specifications.

He said the stored stem cells could also be multiplied at the laboratory so they could be used for therapy in adults, as the amount of cord blood harvested was only enough to treat children.

CryoClinic's brochure claims that in future, on the basis of current research, bone marrow-related cancers, auto-immune disorders such as multiple sclerosis and Crohn's Disease and damaged heart and neural tissue could be cured using stem cells.

But Professor Peter Jacobs, founder of the University of Cape Town's Haematology Department and a leading blood cancer specialist, said donated bone marrow would work as well as cord blood stem cells.

He said the chances of finding matching bone marrow were very good. "The successful treatment of cancer in this way depends on the type of cancer, if the stem cells are used properly and if they were harvested in an accredited centre."

He said the heart treatment CryoClinic cited was in the "developmental stage" and could be realised "tomorrow or never".

Jacobs said Crohn's Disease and multiple sclerosis could only be treated with stem cells "very occasionally" and in highly specialised research centres.

He added that multiplying stem cells in laboratories to make it enough for an adult was "not routine".

Professor Jack Moodley, of the Medical Research Council and the University of Natal's Joint Pregnancy Hypertension Research Unit, said cord blood should be stored publicly so it could be used to benefit more people.

Copyright © 2003, Johnnic Publishing