By BRETT FOLEY
Saturday 10 March 2001
For 41 weeks, it has delivered Leah Stevens everything she needs to grow to a healthy 3.67 kilograms before making her (slightly late) entrance in a delivery suite at Melbourne's Mercy Hospital.
But as she draws - and noisily expels - her first breath, the umbilical cord pulsing between her and her mother Kerry becomes redundant. Within five minutes of delivery, in a moment many new parents barely register as they embrace their newborn, the cord is clamped and cut.
This is the moment in which scientists - and savvy bio-entrepreneurs - glimpse a medical revolution. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to capture a few teaspoons of precious cord blood and with it, the promise of a life free from serious disease.
A British private company, Cryo-Care UK, last week launched a venture offering new parents what it calls "the ultimate in health insurance".
For 600 ($A1724), it will collect cord blood in the moments after birth, milk it for precious cellular building blocks - or stem cells - and then store them in liquid nitrogen for 20 years.
By then, according to research presented to scientists gathered in San Francisco last month, it might provide the basis for individually tailored remedies for diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, cerebral haemorrhages, malignant tumors and blood disorders.
Similar private, cord-blood-storage ventures are already operating in the United States. In Australia, at least one private company is exploring setting up an operation with a public cord-blood storage facility.
Sydney-based biotechnology company Cryosite, which offers cryogenic storage of biological materials, has - according to the Australian Cord Blood Bank at the Sydney Children's Hospital - begun pursuing a joint venture to store babies' cord blood. For a fee, that cord blood would be on hand for each individual to call on in the future, when stem cell research has progressed.
Cryosite chairman Stuart Nettleton said his company was concentrating on developing its human tissue storage business - handling material such as plasma, DNA, cell lines, and other clinical specimens - but confirmed that it was evaluating whether a private cord blood bank was viable. "It is only early days but we are actively evaluating the prospect," he said from the company's Lane Cove headquarters. "We have conducted market research and we see it as a major new market that may develop," he said.
Australian Cord Blood Bank director Professor Marcus Vowels said the company proposed that the facility collect and bag the cord blood and then pass it on to them for freezing and long-term storage. The service would cost between $1500 and $2000, Professor Vowels said.
Professor Vowels said he was interested in a joint venture and was not averse to storing cord blood or stem cells for private use. But he stressed that decisions by individuals or health policy makers in this area should be based on science, and not just a parent's desire to put something away "just in case".
"We would seriously consider such a venture providing it was financially viable, had sufficient demand and was based on scientific data that the cells would have a wide range of uses for different diseases in the future," he said.
"I think a commercial venture is viable right now," he said, but added that there must be more research to assess public demand.
But Professor Vowels' Melbourne colleague, Simon Bol, the scientific director of the National Cord Blood Bank at the Royal Children's Hospital, said he was concerned that stashing away private stores of cord blood and cells would drain donations from pooled cord-blood supplies.
These supplies provide potentially life-saving transfusions to people with leukaemia and other blood cell disorders.
One in 3000 children develop leukaemia. But if the condition is genetic, treatment with their own stem cells may not be the answer. Dr Bol's concerns expose the distance separating scientific promise, medical reality and community expectation.
"Why keep them locked away for a child who has very little chance of using them when there are people out there who genuinely need them?" Dr Bol said.
The deputy director of the Monash University's Centre for Early Human Development, Martin Pera, said stem cells had the potential to treat any of the degenerative cell conditions, ranging from acute episodes such as stroke to heart disease.
Recent animal research suggests the use of stem cells found in bone marrow and cord blood could be used to halt or reverse damage to the heart and brain.
It appears the stem cells somehow track their way to the area of damage and then begin to mature into cells which can replace the damaged ones.
Dr Pera said so-called "regenerative medicine" was still in its infancy, but the potential applications were huge. Progress in animal tests were positive but scientists did not understand the stimulus or mechanism behind cord blood stem cells developing into other tissue.
"In the future it is not outlandish to believe stem cells could be used to repair many types of tissue," Dr Pera said. But he warned that much of the science was still speculative, and parents considering paying to put cells away for the future would have to carefully examine the cost factor.
Professor Vowels said: "It is not quite universal potential, but given the right circumstances and advances in research, it could be remarkably widespread."