Banking your cord blood

Estimated to be a $2 billion market worldwide, cord blood storage market is now beginning to grow at a fast pace in India too, says BV Mahalakshmi

A new biological insurance for your new-born is round the corner. Parents can now store their child’s stem cells from the umbilical cord as many new therapies are expected in the next two to five years.

Parents of new-born babies can now store their child’s stem cells from the umbilical cord of their newborn baby with a laboratory. Many therapies are expected over the next two to five years that promise cure for several diseases. And storage banks are also multiplying across the country, promising to store them at about half the cost in US.

For the uninitiated, cord blood is the blood that remains in the umbilical cord after the baby is born and the umbilical cord is cut. Although once considered medical waste and thrown away, scientists now know that cord blood is rich in stem cells that are more precious than those found in the bone marrow or another part of the human body to treat diseases.

Umbilical cord blood stem cells have already been effectively used in the treatment of sickle cell, leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, other forms of cancer, life threatening anaemia, and auto-immune diseases.

And storage phenomenon is not alone. The entire stem cell research in the country is gaining momentum. Recently, Armed Forces have also vouched for the same. It is reported that through its network of hospitals, the Armed Forces of Medical Services is looking at the promising side of stem cell research to treat victims of war in any kind of disasters. Eyeing this potential, besides the medical fraternity, biotech companies are slowly adding stem cell research as part of their future targeted technologies.

Estimated at over $2 billion worldwide, cord blood storage market is growing rapidly. “These banks are meant for anyone and not classified as elite banks. Since these cells have the potential to save a life sometime in the future, the banks must be accessible to everyone,” says Prasad Mangipudi, vice-president, LifeCell. But it is a complex technology-based concept and involves high costs as these cells have to be collected, processed, harvested and stored under stringent conditions that will have cost implications, he adds.

LifeCell is claimed to be the country’s exclusive private cord blood bank. Formed as a joint venture between Asia CRYO-Cell Pvt Ltd and CRYO-Cell International, Florida, USA and promoted by S Abhaya Kumar, (founder of $100 million Shasun Drugs and Chemicals), it is operational since November 2004.

The price of about Rs 35,500 is claimed to be almost half of what is charged in the US where the technology has been around for almost 15 years. In case of LifeCell, expectant parents can enroll by just paying about Rs 2,600 per month.

Umbilical cord stem cell banks like LifeCell collect the cord blood of new borns and process and harvest stem cells and cryo preserve them in liquid nitrogen at—196 degrees centigrade.

The stem cells that are banked can be used to treat and cure about 75 diseases like certain types of cancers, anaemia, thalassemia. And have also shown potential to cure diseases like diabetes, heart ailments, stroke and spinal cord injuries.

Accepting the fact that there storage banks are multiplying across the country, Prasad opines there is a need for a number of banks to cater to the huge potential it has. As of now, there are about three banks in the country including LifeCell and Reliance Life Sciences and Cryobank. LifeCell also has a research center which focuses on banking to therapy areas of research including areas like stem cell expansion and differentiation.

Many players are foraying into collection, isolation, and storage technologies for cord blood stem cells. After many years of isolating and characterising stem cells, researchers are now just beginning to utilise these as discovery tools and a basis for potential clinical applications. However, we are yet to see the last word on the clinical applications and the long-term effects of stem cell therapy in humans.

Going forward, more banks and transplant centers are expected to come up. Stem cells companies will also focus on clinical trials for other diseases that are not currently curable. For instance, LifeCell has tied up with Saneron CELL to carry out clinical trials for diseases like Stroke, ALS and Spinal cord injuries. Later clinical trials for other diseases will also be taken up.

“While there are no problems with storage as we have the world’s best technology for the same which has been proven over 14 years, the only problem is low level of awareness among expectant parents as this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the baby hence every expectant parent must get a chance to know about it and take a decision,” he adds.

Further, stressing on the note that a government policy is critical since the research is based on advance technology as almost all the equipment, consumables like storage bags, reagents, related to stem cell banking have to be imported. And given the benefits, duty waivers can certainly help. Further, the government can support the efforts to set up public bank which will give more people access to stem cells.

According to few leading researchers from The All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), it has taken the global lead in using the autologous stem cells obtained from bone marrow (sternum, tibia) and using them for various disorders (cardiomyopathies, diabetes, bony disorders, biliary atresia and choledochal Cyst (cirrhotic livers), spinal bifida, cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy).

This has been possible following an extensive background research that has gone for more than two years before using the stem cells on the human beings. At AIIMS, stem cells have been used in more than 150 patients, including neonates and infants for various disorders.

So what makes these cells so important? Umbilical cord blood stem cells have already been effectively used in the treatment of sickle cell, leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, other forms of cancer, life threatening anaemia, and auto-immune diseases. Moreover, stem cells may hold the key to replacing cells lost in many devastating diseases like Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, chronic heart disease, end-stage kidney disease, liver failure and cancer. Lately, stem cell use has been tried in the treatment of burns, infertility, lupus and deafness.

Another major area for research is the development of transplantable pancreatic tissues that can be used to treat diabetes. Researchers have recently shown that human embryonic stem cells to be directly differentiated into cells that produce insulin.

Researchers are trying to devise ways to use specialised cells derived from stem cells to target specific cancerous cells and directly deliver treatments that will destroy or modify them.

In recent years, cord blood transplants (CBTs) have become widely recognised as a safe, effective, and in many ways preferable, alternative to bone marrow transplant. There is a tremendous potential for CBTs in the developed countries as well as Asian counties such as China, India and Korea.

—(With inputs from Sudhir Chowdhary)

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