Striking a cord: Is it worth saving stem cells? Yes, if you plan to share

To help more people get treated using stem cells from cord blood, private banks should now promote sharing within their own pool.
Updated on Aug 19, 2017 09:44 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By Anonna Dutt

New parents are beginning to bank their baby’s cord blood cells in the hope that they can be used to treat serious diseases later on in the child’s life.

Many of them have been told that the cells can already be used to treat about 80 blood and immunological conditions. So they fork out thousands a year for the service.

What they are not told is that the tiny amounts saved at birth would not be sufficient to treat a serious condition in an adult.

Stem cells are currently being used to treat…

Leukemia; Thalassemia; Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma; Hodgkin’s disease; Hunter’s syndrome ; Neuroblastoma; Sickle cell disease; and a range of cancers

In the future, they are expected to help in the treatment of…

Heart disease; Alzheimer’s; Multiple sclerosis; Muscular dystrophy; Parkinson’s disease; Diabetes

“Globally, around 50,000 cases of cancer have been treated with stem cells from cord blood, but banking is not a feasible solution because the amount preserved is not enough for bone marrow transplants in adults,” says Dr Dharama Choudhary, bone-marrow transplant specialist at BLK Super Speciality Hospital.

For example, if one child has leukemia and has a newborn sibling, instead of using the cord blood doctors would rather wait for a couple of years and use the bone marrow of the younger child for transplant, adds Dr IC Verma, senior consultant of medical genetics and genomics at Delhi’s Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.

“Even if you have enough, using cord blood cells is more costly and the recovery period is longer,” Dr Choudhary adds.


How umbilical cord stem cells are saved

If you’re pregnant and are considering storing your baby’s stem cells, register with a service provider about a month before your due date.

Check with your doctor that correct retrieval will be possible.

Nearer to the birth, the bank will send a sterile collection kit for the obstetrician to use.

Umbilical cord stem cell banking is completely safe for mother and child.

It is a 10-minute procedure that involves collection of cord blood from the umbilical cord after it has been clamped and cut after delivery.

At the bank’s lab, the blood will be processed and the stem cells harvested and stored in a cryogenic depository at -196 degrees Celsius.

Currently, cord blood is preserved in less than 1% of deliveries in urban centres, with the number being a higher 2% in private tertiary-care hospitals. “The percentage is higher in Hyderabad, Bangalore and Pune, although we have not been able to ascertain the reason,” says Upamannyue Roy Choudhury, CEO of CordLife India, a private cord blood bank.

The idea of public registries run by charitable organisations never really took off. “That registry was meant so that anyone could purchase stem cells from a shared bank, but it has only about 5,000 units of cord blood banked across India. Private banks have about 500,000,” says Mayur Abhaya, executive director at Life Cell International, one such private bank.

To help more people get treated using stem cells from cord blood, private banks should now promote sharing within their own pool, doctors add. “We have underutilised assets, so pools would benefit people who have not banked cord blood,” says Abhaya.

His company charges an initial fee of Rs 17,000 for the processing of banked cord blood and then Rs 4,000 a year for banking it. “We have now started a sharing system where, for the same amount, the baby, its parents and both sets of grandparents can draw cord blood too – from the shared pool – at no extra cost,” he says.

Life Cell estimates that even with the sharing of saved cord blood, utilisation would be only around 10%, because of the low incidence of the conditions that cord blood can be used to treat.

In the four months since starting the community pool, 99% of new customers have opted for the sharing model. “We are now going back to older customers and trying to bring them into this pool as well,” Abhaya says.


Case study: Family matters

Nitya Dua, 14, is like any other teenager, but not so long ago, she needed two units of blood every month to treat her thalassaemia.

Her father, Mohit, a businessman from Ghaziabad, read about bone-marrow transplants being used to treat thalassemia, and when his son was born in 2009, he had the infant’s cord blood banked.

In 2012, doctors performed a bone marrow transplant using the cord blood and bone marrow donated by Nitya’s brother.

“The cord blood wasn’t enough on its own,” Mohit says.

Would he recommend that people to get cord blood banked. “How can I not? It did help,” he says.

Nitya is now cured and is focussing on her class 9 studies.

On average, only about 0.004% to 0.005% of people who store cord blood end up using it for their own treatment, says Dr Choudhary of BLK.

In addition to the problem of too little cord blood being harvested for treatment of serious diseases in adults, there is the issue of incorrect storage. “Storage is not done correctly in many Indian banks. The cord blood is cryopreserved, and when it is thawed, the number of viable cells drops drastically,” Dr Choudhary says.

Public cord blood banking, though, has a future. “Storing cord blood in a public banking system, where it may be used by others in need, is more feasible,” says Dr IC Verma. “It will take another couple of decades before people will be able to meaningfully use their own cord blood.”

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