Some of the most gorgeous mommies in Bollywood have urged you – through print and TV ads – to gift your baby “lifetime protection” by preserving the umbilical cord in a stem cell bank they endorse. If these ads haven’t reached you, chances are you would have got at least one call from a stem cell bank during your pregnancy, trying to convince you to bank your umbilical cord with them. Considering that stem cells are used throughout the world for treating a number of diseases (and many more are in research phase currently), it should be easy for you to decide to bank the cells. However, the relative newness of this concept in India and the cost involved for the same make many parents pause.
Before you make the decision, you need to first understand what stem cell banking is and how it can help your child and your family.
What Is Stem Cell Banking?
A step back. Let us first understand what stem cells are. Stem cells are the building blocks of life, having two distinct characteristics that give it life-saving super powers:
- They are un-specialized or undifferentiated. This means that they have the potential to become ANY cell type in the body, so they can help repair tissues, organs, and blood vessels. Stem cells can also be used to treat a host of diseases
- They can self-renew through cell division for life time
Put together, this means that a stem cell can act as a repair system – it can divide itself and convert into any specialized cell (e.g. liver cell, brain cell, red blood cell) that requires replenishment. Therefore, the use of stem cells transplant to treat illnesses, including blood cancer and immune system disorders, continues to revolutionize the medicinal field.
Are Stem Cells Only Present In The Umbilical Cord?
It is interesting to note that umbilical cord is not the only source of stem cells. Stem cells are seen all over our body, and are specifically concentrated in the bone marrow. However, extraction of stem cells from bone marrow is a painful, cumbersome and costly process. And the stem cells found in rest of the body are not rich enough to be used in medical therapies. This is where umbilical cord steps in:
- It is one of the most pristine sources of stem cells, without any exposure to pathogens that can lead to possible infections in a future transplant
- It is easy to collect during the delivery of the child
- It has relatively low chances of rejection in transplants
Stem cell banking, hence, involves collection of blood left in the umbilical cord of your child during child birth and preserving it for future medical use.
Is Stem Cell Banking And Cord Cell Banking Same?
Yes. Stem cells are extracted from the umbilical “cord” blood – and hence are called as cord cells too.
How Are Cord Blood Stem Cells Collected?
It is collected right after the birth of your child. The collection process is noninvasive and painless – chances are you would not even realize it happening in the excitement of seeing and holding your baby for the first time. After the delivery (whether it is normal or C-section), your doctor would clamp and cut the umbilical cord as done normally. Then they will extract blood from the umbilical cord that is attached to the placenta. This blood is stored in a collection bag, sent to the stem cell bank where you are registered, where it is processed and frozen for long-term storage.
If the stem cell bank you have chosen does not have a storage facility in the area of your hospital, then they will typically send a representative to the hospital on the day of your delivery for collecting the blood from the hospital and preserving it in frozen, high quality condition till it is shipped to the storage facility. This is something you need not worry about.
Which Companies Offer Stem Cell Banking in India?
There are many reputed companies providing stem cell banking in India. Some of the popular ones are:
- ReliCord – Stem cell banking by Reliance Life Sciences
- CryoBanks International India
You should chose a stem cell bank that is highly reputed and touts of superior technological advancements. Most of them will arrange a “site visit” where you can visit the storage bank and see for yourself the quality measures followed. You should also look for facilities that can withstand natural calamities like earth quakes and pick a company that has storage banks in areas less prone to floods and cyclones. Some of these companies offer “dual site” storage – meaning the stem cells are split and stored in two different cities, to avoid any risk involved in one site being destroyed.
If you are not residing in India currently, you should know that in many of the developed countries you have an option to store your child’s stem cells in a government-funded stem cell bank. The advantage of this facility is that the bank will store the cells indefinitely free of cost. The disadvantage, although minor, is that the cells are not stored exclusively for your child or your family – it is available for any patient who matches the tissue type of your child’s stem cells.
What Is The Cost Of Stem Cell Banking In India?
The cost varies depending on the company and the plan you have chosen. Most companies offer single–site storage for an annual payment ranging from 1500 to 3500. If you are opting to use a one-time payment for 25 or 50 years, there are much discounted options for the same.
Some companies offer to store the umbilical cord tissue – in addition to the blood – for an extra cost. The cord tissue contains stem cells that are different from the ones in cord blood and can be used for diseases concerning cartilage, muscle, and nerve cells.
Some companies also offer to store the placenta/ blood and tissue, again for an extra cost. Placenta tissue is a rich source of Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSCs) and CD34+ stem cells, which can be used in medical treatments for both baby and mother.
What Are The Benefits Of Stem Cell Banking?
Cord blood cells when banked have unique advantages and are more helpful as compared to adult blood cells from sources like bone marrow. When saved, there is a lesser risk of complications if your child needs to go for a transplant, and can help in treating conditions for which medical treatments are still lacking. By deciding to bank your child’s healthy stem cells, you are basically facilitating a treatment for your child if he/she succumbs to any of the diseases (see below) that require stem-cell transplant treatment. You can also offer to donate your baby’s cord to help other patients seeking treatment for serious diseases. Though the trend now is 90% to 10% for family stem cell banking and public stem cell banking. Some of the diseases that can be treated by stem cells are:
- Blood disorders like Sickle Cell Anemia
- Inherited Immune System Disorders – Neutropenias
There are many more. In addition, there are a number of clinical studies underway currently that explores the use of stem cells in many conditions like autism, cerebral palsy, lupus, arthritis and spinal cord injury. Stem cells are the building blocks of blood and immune system, having the ability to transform into cells that can repair tissues and organs and even the blood, thus treating many rare but dangerous diseases.
What Are The Cons Of Stem Cell Banking?
While no one can discredit stem cells’ importance in medicine, it has also become a very lucrative “business”. One important fact that no stem cell banking company would tell you is that the probability that a child will ever use his or her own stored cord blood are small. The main reasons for this are:
- The diseases for which stem cell transplant is a possible cure are not “commonly seen” diseases
- For certain conditions like cancer, a donor stem cell is more preferred than the child’s own cell because the defect that caused cancer will be present in the stem cells as well
That said, the chances that your child’s stem cells can come in handy for the medical treatment of his/her siblings or other blood relatives are higher.
Should I Go For Stem Cell Banking?
There is absolutely no question that stem cells have the capacity to save lives. Considering it is collected from something that is otherwise discarded after birth (placenta and umbilical cord), it involves no physical damage to the mother and child as well. So your final choice comes down to affordability:
If you can afford to keep aside the required amount without hurting your finances in anyway, then by all means you should go for it.
If it is not easily affordable, that is when you should sit down and have a discussion about it with your spouse. Go through the list of diseases that stem-cell transplant can cure; go through the list of diseases for which clinical trials involving stem-cells are on – if there is a family history for these diseases, then it might be a good idea to consider stem cell banking.
If you cannot afford it, then do not worry about it. Your child most likely would grow up to become a healthy adult and would not require a stem cell transplant in his life! Also future would open up many more advancements in medicine that might lead to treatment of some of these diseases without using stem cells.