Stem cells

Saving your child's cord blood 'may be a waste of time'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 July, 2006, 12:00am


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The rising number of parents saving the blood from their baby's umbilical cord in the hope it can be used to treat certain diseases the child may contract later in life may be wasting their time and money, health experts say.

The private storage of cord blood has become increasingly popular, with at least four companies now offering the service in Hong Kong. The companies suggest the blood can help treat inherited diseases and has the potential to treat heart disease, spinal cord injury and liver disease.

But the head of the University of Hong Kong's bone marrow transplant centre, Raymond Liang Hin-suen, said patients with inherited diseases would not be able to use their own cord blood as it would be carrying the 'sick genes' responsible for the illness. 'It would be more reliable to use cord blood from other people, who carry different genes,' he said.

He said no one in Hong Kong had yet had their own cord blood used for treatment despite storage having been available for a decade.

Cord blood from about 7,000 Hong Kong babies has been stored so far in private banks.

Associate professor of paediatrics at the Chinese University, Karen Li Kwai-har, said she had heard of 'a very few' successful cases overseas where the cord blood successfully treated the individual it was from, but did not know further details. And she said its possibilities for use remained limited.

Her colleague Cheng Pik-shun, also a paediatrician, said she was not aware of any evidence to support the claim that umbilical cord blood could be used to treat the person it came from. However, storage could make sense to treat other members of a family.

According to one private cord blood bank, there has been at least one case, in Singapore, where cord blood from one sibling was used to successfully treat another with leukaemia. Results were pending in two similar cases, also overseas, another private bank said.

The medical experts' comments came after Britain's Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said last month that claims about the treatment benefits of one's own cord blood could not be substantiated by available medical evidence.

'There is still insufficient evidence to recommend directed commercial cord blood collection and stem-cell storage in low-risk families,' it said, adding it was understandable that patients who could afford to do so 'may wish to avail themselves of commercial services offered'.

Over the past 10 years, at least four private cord blood banks in Hong Kong have been opened. The latest, Taiwan-based HealthBaby, started in May.

CryoLife, which opened in 1996 claiming to be the first such facility in Hong Kong, said that at present, self-use of cord blood was not ideal for patients with inherited diseases. But a more sophisticated approach would eventually allow doctors to genetically modify the stem cells in the cord blood to use them to treat the individual.

All four private umbilical cord blood banks said none of their clients in Hong Kong had retrieved their cord blood for medical use so far. But they stressed their history was still 'too short' to see the medical benefits of their services.

CryoLife offers packages from $16,000 for a five-year-storage plan to $27,500 for an 18-year plan. Another company, Smart Cells, charges $25,000 for 25 years' storage in Britain.

Chief of plastic surgery at the Chinese University, Andrew Burd, said he believed umbilical cord blood should not be stored 'on a speculative basis for the benefit of a few' but should be regarded as 'a priceless human resource to be used to the benefit of all humanity'.

According to the Red Cross, which launched a public cord blood bank in 1998 with a donation of $11 million from the Jockey Club, 14 transplants of cord blood have been successfully carried out using donated blood. The Red Cross provides cord blood free for patients.

The Red Cross is appealing for more funding to expand its storage from the current 2,300 units to 5,000.

Professor Liang said: 'I can hardly think of any diseases which are best treated by using patients' own cord blood at this stage. Of course, I cannot foresee the future. I still believe that there will also be other alternatives in light of rapid medical advancement.'