Experts urge parents to donate umbilical cord blood to national unit for future treatments for multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s
October 5, 2003
Sarah-Kate Templeton, Health Editor
Stem cells will be taken from Scottish babies at birth and stored for 10 years in the first national bank of umbilical cord blood.
The cells will be used to treat children suffering from cancer or blood diseases such as leukaemia and different forms of anaemia.
Specially trained midwives will be sent into maternity hospitals to collect the vital cord blood – from babies whose parents have given permission – at the time of birth. The stem cells will then be stored by the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service (SNBTS), which has secured £750,000 of government funding to run the bank.
Umbilical cord blood is now prized as a rich source of stem cells, which doctors use in transplants for patients needing bone marrow. About 3000 cord-blood transplants have been performed worldwide for diseases including leukaemia, lymphoma, thalassaemia and anaemia.
And doctors are confident that, in the future, the technology will be applied to more illnesses, including multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and also strokes.
The potential benefits have already prompted thousands of parents in the UK to pay around £1000 to store their babies’ cord blood with private companies. The process has been likened to freezing a copy of the child’s immune system and marketed by storage firms as “the ultimate health insurance for your new baby”.
The practice of privately storing a baby’s cord blood for the child’s own use or for another family member is particularly popular in the US, but it is becoming increasingly common in Europe and is also taking off in the Middle East. It is estimated that 200,000 sets of parents around the world have privately stored their babies’ umbilical cord blood for their own use. This compares with only around 60,000 couples who have agreed to donate their child’s cord blood to anonymous, publicly run banks to be used by whoever needs it.
While individuals are privately storing cord blood as an insurance against a future health disaster in the family, experts have urged anonymous donations instead.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has advised against private storage, as it would like to see the technology offered to everyone, whether they can afford it or not, through public banks. And the American Academy of Paediatrics says the chances that a child would need his or her own cord blood are slim compared with the chances of saving someone else through a community cord blood bank.
This, says Dr Rachel Green, clinical director of the West of Scotland Blood Transfusion Service, is what Scotland’s national cord blood bank will do. “We are going to start a cord blood bank for the greater good of society. We believe that altruistic donation is the way ahead.
“For each single individual storing cord blood it is rare that they personally will develop leukaemia or a blood disorder, so the blood is going to no-one and it will eventually need to be discarded,” said Green.
“It is not practical to store everyone’s cord blood – that would use up all the resources of the NHS. To store 1000 cord blood samples, it costs £250,000. We are hoping to store the blood from 3000 umbilical cords in three years.
“People looking for a stem cell transplant will be able to search our database. I hope that some people will be generous and donate for the common good. There is still a good altruistic streak within Scotland.”
Green admits that a situation could arise where a child whose cord blood has been donated to the national bank, develops leukaemia and finds that his or her stem cells have already been given to another child. The stem cells will be given to the first person who needs them, provided they are a suitable match.
“When the parents give consent they would understand that the stem cells are for use altruistically. The chances are that, if the child became ill and needed a transplant, their stem cells would still be there. It would be unlikely they would have been used by someone else, but it is possible that could happen.”
The ethical dilemma of private versus communal storage of cord blood has been recognised by the UK’s leading commercial stem cell storage enterprise, Cryo Care UK, which is planning to develop a charitable arm. The firm, which provides a private stem cell storage service for 2000 British families, plans to help set up a charity to run a public bank.
Shamshad Ahmed, managing director of Cryo Care UK, does not believe the demand for private storage will fall once public banks are up and running. He says those who can afford to pay will still invest in ensuring that cord blood cells are safely stored away for their own family.
“These parents are storing an insurance policy and we know that, in the future, we will be able to do a lot more with stem cells.
“There will always be people who want their stem cells to be stored just for themselves because we are living in a society of choice. If I was a customer, I would pay £1000 to store stem cells for my child, although I would hope never to need to use them.
“There will still be people who store for private purposes, just as people use private health care. People are taking more and more responsibility for their own health.
“But, occasionally, couples say they would like to donate their baby’s stem cells. They do not want to privately store them but would like to contribute towards a public bank. People cannot search for a match in the private bank. That is why, from an ethical point of view, we would like to help expand the public bank.
“One of the things we are looking at is having a public bank in addition to a private bank. We would ask people if they would like to store for their own use or to donate for the use of everyone else. We would like to do a joint programme.”
While this is Scotland’s first cord blood bank, local banks for umbilical
cord blood have already been set up in London and Newcastle. Scotland’s
bank, which will open in April next year, will be run jointly with a national
bank for Northern Ireland.
Copyright © 2003, Sunday Herald