11 August 2009

Banking for baby

Storing stem cells from the umbilical cord is growing in popularity, as an increasing number of research studies point to the future potential of these cells. Here's how it works.

Storing stem cells from the umbilical cord is growing in popularity, as an increasing number of research studies point to the future potential of these life-giving cells.

What's more, stem cells are abundant in the umbilical cord and placenta, and since these are discarded after birth, their use isn’t controversial.

Many South Africans are already making the investment to ensure the future health of their children.

"When I was pregnant with Jack in 2002, I subscribed to an American pregnancy newsletter by email," recalls Renee Moodie, senior journalist at Independent Online. "It carried ads for stem cell banks – so I knew the possibility was out there but the cost of doing it via an American cell bank was out of my reach. Then I heard you could do it locally and we decided to go for it."

Renee and her husband Bob felt that storing umbilical cord blood was a kind of insurance for the future. "We know that there’s not a lot of work being done in South Africa on the use of stem cells – but what if, in some awful future, our Jack gets sick and a new use of stem cells could save him?

"If that happens, we have them sitting safely in a bank. And at the time, the whole thing cost about R9 000 – the exact amount of money I had sitting in some under-performing unit trusts. It just seemed a no-brainer to me."

How it works
Stem cell banks, of which there are two in South Africa, are specifically aimed at storing cells from the umbilical cord for private clients.

The moment your baby is born, blood is taken from the umbilical cord and placenta. Stem cells are then extracted, cryogenically frozen and stored in the bank as a form of ‘biological insurance’. If, in its lifetime, the baby or a close family member develops a disease that can be cured by means of stem-cell transplantation, there will be a good supply of stem cells at hand.

“But this is only half the story,” notes Prof Michael Pepper, Extraordinary Professor in Immunology at the University of Pretoria's Faculty of Health Sciences. “What South Africa really needs at this stage is a public umbilical cord blood bank. It’s a social responsibility that must be combined with the freedom of choice afforded by the private banks. God willing, a public bank may soon see the light of day.”

Stem cells from the umbilical cord are naturally a perfect match for the child. The chances of a match with close family members are also relatively high:

For information, call Netcell Therapeutics on 0861 NETCELLS (0861 638 2355) or 011 301 0000.

[This is an extract from an article by Health24's Carine Visagie as it appears in the launch issue of NETCARE magazine, May 2008. The online version was updated in August, 2009.]

Read more: Stem cells - hope or hype?


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