The blood from a baby’s umbilical cord was once thought to be a simply a waste product and was always disposed of. Now, however, years after the first cord blood transplant, it is emerging as a front runner in regenerative medicine. More than ever parents are choosing this as a means of underpinning the future health and well- being of their child.
Are there any downsides to this procedure?
It is widely accepted that the procedure of extracting blood from the umbilical cord is both easy to do and very safe for the baby. The stem cells are extracted from the umbilical cord blood after the placenta is delivered and then stored cryogenically until they may be required for future use.
The number of cells may be small
One of the disadvantages of cord blood, however, is that normally the amount collected is both fixed and small relative to the collection of stem cells from bone marrow or peripheral blood. As a consequence, the engraftment (or return of these cells) to the blood can be slower and there may be too little available to treat an adolescent or adult or to perform multiple treatments.
There are, however, patented technologies available which can provide up to three times more stem cells than the normal methods of cord blood processing and this is crucial not only to how successful a treatment will be but it can also mean that multiple treatments or treatments for adults are a very real possibility.
Are the stem cells stored in one unit?
In many cases, cord blood is stored in one unit and thus when it is thawed all of this batch is available. However, if not all of that batch is actually required for a particular treatment, the rest will probably go to waste as a result.
Where multiple treatments may be required in the future it would seem sensible to have your baby’s cord blood in multiple samples which means that only the correct amount is thawed for a particular treatment, leaving the remainder available for the future.
Is cryogenic storage safe and reliable?
The process of cryogenically storing your child’s cord blood is generally very safe and effective. But given the relatively high cost of the procedure it would be fair to ask what would happen should the freezing facilities fail for some reason, be it internal or external. In this situation sadly the stems cells that had been stored would be lost.
Obviously there are no guarantees but using a company that has two storage facilities and splitting your stored stem cells between them (and again in multiple samples) goes a very long way towards mitigating a lot of this risk.
Is there a limit to how long the stem cells can be stored?
Obviously cord blood banking has only been in existence for approximately 30 yearsand as a result there is no hardscientific evidence available to prove that stem cells from cord blood can be stored beyond that period. However, scientists working in the field believe that cryogenically stored stem cells may actually be stored for an indefinite period.
But the process is expensive!
Obviously for any parent or prospective parent the decision to have their baby’s stem cells extracted from the cord blood and stored is very much an economic as well as emotive decision. In reality, the costs of this procedure are within budget for very many parents.
However, when it comes to thawing the cells for use in a procedure later on in a child’s life the costs can really start to spiral out of control. One of the principle reasons for this is of course that there are so few countries in the world that currently allow these transplantation procedures to take place.
Insurance could be the answer…
Taking out an insurance policy, at the same time as the stem cell storage takes place, to cover the expenses of future procedures would seem to be a very sensible solution to this problem and very low cost. This gives the parents peace of mind to know that they have done everything for their child to cover all the eventualities.
It would seem that parents looking at this procedure for their children should be careful to choose a storage partner that can offer the patented technology that provides three times the number of cells, more than one storage location as well as the ability to store cord blood in multiple samples.
I am a serial entrepreneur specialising in life sciences and chair two exceptional companies Cells4Life, the UK's largest cord blood stem cell bank, and Stabilitech Biopharma, developer of the world's first 15-strain influenza vaccine and the first platform that will allow any vaccine to be take orally.
I graduated from Imperial with a First Class Honours degree in mathematics and physics and joined IBM during the computing revolution in the 1980s. And 4 years later, at the age of 26, founded my first company which specialised in networking and communications products distribution. It grew to revenues of over $500m in 13 years, employing over 1,200 people operating in 9 European countries with a full listing on the London Stock Exchange. I have run several other companies including a high-speed firewall company based in California; founded one of Europe's largest network training companies; and developed one of the first LAN search engines.
By far, the most rewarding part of my career has been life sciences - it combines my love of science, bleeding edge technology, managing complicated companies and directly helping people achieve better outcomes in their health.
In my personal life, I am a very keen dressage rider and my move from technology to life sciences was because of an injury to one of my horses. I have ridden all my life and had a dream of making Team GB in dressage. I bought Kaspar when he was two years old - he was, and still is, a dream horse to ride and train. He was the first horse that I managed to train to Grand Prix and in 2003 he had a very common injury, he tore a suspensory ligament. Normally, this would mean the end for his competitive career. However, my vet suggested we try stem cells - which at the time was a very rare therapy. They worked brilliantly and he returned to a full and long competition career and he did make Team GB.
Astonishingly, whilst I could treat my horse with stem cells, these therapies were not available to the public. The first cord blood stem cell treatment was performed back in 1988 and were used to treat Fanconi anaemia, today they are being used for over 85 different conditions and are the only therapy for cerebral palsy and autism. Stem cells are the building blocks of regenerative medicine and are going to fundamentally change how we are able to treat most illnesses and injuries - everyone of us needs to know about them and have the opportunity to use them as therapies are developed.
The most powerful stem cells available are potentially those contained in umbilical cord blood. My mission is to promote regenerative medicine and help make it available to everyone.