Stem cell banking explained
Could storing stem cells from your baby’s cord blood protect the future health of your family? And how do you even do that? Helen Foster explores the pros and cons of this medical investment
If you’ve recently been to a baby show, used a pregnancy app or even hit Google for pregnancy advice, chances are you’ve seen ads for companies offering to store your baby’s stem cells in case they’re ever needed in the future. But why? Is this just expensive insurance against something that might never happen, or a wise parent’s investment for the future?
Right, pens out, class, it’s time for a quick biology lesson on what stem cells actually are. Obviously, as the name suggests, they’re cells. But unlike most of the cells in the body – for example, skin, brain or liver cells – they’re not specialised for one area. ‘Instead, they’re like “building blocks”, precursors to the various cells of our body,’ says consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist Pradnya Pisal from London Gynaecology. ‘They can develop into any cell type we want them to – skin, muscle, nerves or blood. This means that they can be used to repair, regenerate or replace other cells and therefore treat some very debilitating and life-threatening diseases.’
Stem cells can be found in several places, including the blood, bone marrow and the pulp in the centre of teeth. However, what most banks store is cells found in the blood left in the umbilical cord and placenta after birth. Known as cord blood, this is a rich source of stem cells that are younger and so more biologically flexible than those in bone marrow or dental pulp. When transplanted, these immature cells are also less likely to be rejected by the body than older stem cells.
Cord blood stem cells are also the easiest to collect and store. The sample is collected immediately after the cord is clamped and cut (so it doesn’t hurt your baby and won’t interfere with the two of you spending time together after the birth), then sent off to be screened, catalogued and frozen until someone needs it. ‘We can get that sample to someone virtually immediately,’ says Jesmina James, head of collections for the NHS Cord Blood Bank. ‘That’s compared to the three months it can take to find, then screen and collect a stem cell sample from a bone marrow match.’
Right now there are more than 80 diseases that cord blood stem cells are licensed to treat, including the blood cancers leukaemia and lymphoma, and the blood disorders sickle cell anaemia and thalassemia. Since the first cord transplant in 1988 more than 35,000 lives have been saved by the technique, but it’s not so much what we can do now that is exciting researchers in this field, it’s what’s they could do in the future: there are currently more than 300 different clinical trials investigating this.
‘For example, there are very promising studies in the USA looking into using stem cells to treat elements of autism, while in Australia they are investigating treating Type 1 diabetes,’ says Dr Husein Salem from banking company Precious Cells. Trials are also taking place on cerebral palsy, spinal cord damage, MS and more. This means that stem cells have the potential to be incredibly powerful for the future of medicine.
All this research and the relative ease of collecting cord blood leads the experts spoken to for this feature – stem cell researchers, NHS staff and representatives of the cell banking companies – to say the same thing. Don’t let your cord blood be thrown away. ‘If you can bank cord blood you absolutely should – no doubt about it,’ says Dr Dusko Ilic, a reader in stem cell science at King’s College London. But what he and the other experts do debate is how the cells should be banked.
Right now, in the UK, you have two options – you can do it publicly via the NHS at six hospitals in and around London, and via the Anthony Nolan Trust at three hospitals around the country and another in London; or you can go to the private banking companies who collect samples.
Do it publicly and the service is free but the sample will not be kept for your own family’s private use – it goes on a database and anyone who needs it can use it. That might be you, or it might be someone on the other side of the world. Dr Ilic, Pradnya Pisal and Jesmina James would prefer that we took this option, as the samples can also be used to further research when they’re publicly banked.