London NHS leads baby stem cell banking

You may have heard of the increasingly popular practice of having your baby’s stem cells collected from the umbilical cord blood at birth.  The blood in the umbilical cord is rich in blood-type stem cells and the idea is to freeze them in the hope that they could be used as a treatment for your child in the future.  There are over ten companies in the UK offering this service privately for about £2,000 a time.  However, you may not be aware that you can also have your baby’s stem cells banked with the NHS in their Cord Blood Bank.  The bank has been operating since 1996 and works along the same lines as the National Blood Bank, providing cord blood stem cells for anyone who needs them.  The NHS service is only available in a limited number of hospitals and London is leading the way as all five are in our area: Barnet, Northwick Park, Luton and Dunstable, Watford and St George’s hospitals.

The stem cells present in umbilical cord blood can be used to treat Leukaemia and other blood disorders as an alternative to a bone marrow transplant.  The good thing is that the match required when using cord blood stem cells is less stringent than it is for bone marrow, so there is more chance of finding a good match.  However, the tissue type match is influenced by donor ethnicity so the London hospitals have been specially chosen to maximise the diversity of ethnicity of their donors and they encourage as many of us as possible to donate.  This has made the UK’s NHS bank, which is already fourth largest in the world, the second best globally for finding rare tissue type matches.

The companies that offer the service privately keep the cord blood solely for your own family’s use.  It strikes me that this is rather like taking a pint of your own blood and keeping it in case you’re ever in a car accident.  The chances of needing it are slim and you may not have kept enough if the worst were to happen.  But I can understand the security people feel in keeping their own supply.  However, it’s worth bearing in mind that if the disease you need to treat using cord blood has a genetic element to it, as Leukaemia often does, then you would not use your own cord blood because it would carry that genetic trait.  You would need to get a matched unit of blood from an unrelated donor in a public bank.  So I say hooray for London and for the thousands of baby Londoners who have already donated their cord blood to the NHS bank.

There has always been a hope, which the promotional literature of cord blood banking companies is quick to point out, that the stem cells in cord blood might one day be used to treat many other diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons.  This has remained only a theoretical possibility with the technology still a long way off in the laboratory, let alone in people.  However, huge recent advances have allowed scientists to turn adult stem cells of one type of tissue backwards into ’embryonic like’ stem cells that can then be turned forward into a different tissue of choice.  Scientists in Oxford are among the first in the world to be given permission to conduct clinical trials using adult skin stem cells to treat Parkinson’s disease.  They will be attempting to turn skin stem cells into neuronal cells and will then see if they can use them to treat Parkinson’s disease.  If they can do that, the doors will be open to see if they can turn any stem cell of the body into any other tissue type.  That would be a huge step towards a brand new way of treating a very wide range of diseases.

Of course there will always be a need for the NHS Cord Blood Bank to treat blood disorders such as Leukaemia, and that is a proven technology which works.  But looking to the future, will it be adult or baby stem cells that win the race to be used to treat anything and everything?  It is all speculation at the moment.  But it seems to me that if the technology can be proven to work using adult stem cells, then that will turn out to be the most practical choice.  It would avoid the need to keep cells frozen for decades and the risk of them deteriorating over time.  Instead, cells could just be taken from an adult as and when needed.  And it would not require forward planning, which I for one am not very good at – especially when nine months pregnant!  We will have to wait and see what the outcome of the Oxford trials holds.  It is an exciting time to watch the treatments of the future unfold.

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