The Stem Cell Debate

In recent years stem cell therapy has been able to help treat more and more people suffering from life threatening conditions. At the forefront of this research has been cells taken from umbilical cords.

Traditionally people suffering from blood disorders or life-threatening medical conditions, like leukaemia, would have to endure cells being taken from their bone marrow. Not only were these procedures extremely painful but also they were not always successful. The only other option was to search for a donor match, which again was very unreliable and particularly difficult for mixed race families or in cases where donor sperm or eggs were used for conception.

Families now have the option to use the umbilical cord as a source of stem cells. This technique is not only painless, but is also a far richer source than bone marrow for cells. Umbilical cord cells are the body’s progenitor or ‘master cells’ and therefore have the ability to multiply and transform into other cells.  Umbilical cord cells also therefore provide new hope for regenerative medicine tackling major diseases such as diabetes and in tissue organ repair.

Dr Peter Hollands, Senior Lecturer in Bio-Medical Sciences at Westminster University and Scientific Director of Smart Cells International says, “I would like to see umbilical cord blood storage offered to every pregnant woman.  It is a simple process which really can be a life-saver.”

How does it work?
Cord blood is taken simply from the umbilical cord after the birth of the baby once the midwife or doctor has ensured that both mother and baby are healthy. Using a sterile collection kit, at least 40ml of cord blood is then collected from the umbilical cord to ensure successful processing.. The blood sample is then sent to our laboratory where the baby’s stem cells are extracted, frozen and stored.

Even though the first cord blood transfusion took place over twenty-one years ago, many are still wary of the procedure and its effectiveness.

Certain hospitals have even put a complete ban on the collection of stem cells from umbilical cords, while others are open to the idea and much more accommodating. 
Critics have argued that the future for cord stem cells is still unknown and the future effectiveness is unpredictable.

Future Health Technologies Ltd believe that although there are different opinions on the statistics of the likelihood of using the cells, when all the possible uses are added up then the chances increase. They suggest there are further increases if you factor in the possibility of using the cells for brothers, sisters or even parents of the child. There are also many promising research projects that are being carried out around the world on the use of stem cells. One of the most recent is a clinical trial to investigate the use of stem cells for the repair of heart muscle following a heart attack or other similar incident.

Last year when the Department of Health published the UK’s first report into this area of research, they acknowledged the growing interest in cord blood banking and its ability to treat illnesses.  Conducted by Technopolis, the review surveyed both the UK picture and practices in other countries and made a selection of recommendations for the Government. These included a national policy on cord blood, which would include the aim of increasing future rates of public donation/collection and  a commission into further research on public-private models. The research also advised the development of marketing guidelines for private cord blood companies to ensure accurate information is available to parents and the development of  further insight into the place of cord blood stem cell research in relation to other stem cell research options.

These recommendations will hopefuly allow more pregnant women to be informed about their choices for their baby’s cord blood so that fewer cords are just thrown away.  It is also to be hoped that it will bring an end to the barriers that NHS hospitals can often place in the way of parents who do choose to collect and store cord blood with private companies.

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