Umbilical cord banks – a lifeline or an ethical tangle?
A company is encouraging expectant mothers to freeze their babies’ umbilical cords, which are rich in stem cells
Helen McConnell and her son Thomas (3) at home at Knocklyon, Co Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke
The back pages of The Irish Times reflect our changing lives. But it is not every day you come across an advertisement encouraging you to freeze your biological material.
The Medicare Bio Health company is encouraging expectant mothers to freeze their babies’ umbilical cords, which are rich in stem cells, and store them for 20 years, for use in potential medical emergencies. This was not a service that Michael Doherty of Medicare Bio Health, a provider of maternity medical supplies, had ever planned on providing.
“It was mums coming to us, early in 2002 and 2003. Perhaps they’d heard about it when they were on holiday in America. I can only guess where these stories came out of.”
The first stem cell transplant had been performed 10 years before, by Prof Eliane Gluckman, on a little boy with Fanconi’s anaemia, an inherited syndrome of bone marrow failure.
Alive and well
The child received blood from the umbilical cord of his sister, who was still in their mother’s womb.Today he is alive and well.
The first public cord blood bank opened in New York in 1988.
“Now there are approximately 600,000 cords stored worldwide,” says Owen Smith, professor of paediatric haematology at Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children, Crumlin.
“There have been 30,000 cord stem cell transplants. It’s an incredible success story.”
It is also a story with huge ethical implications, not least in the contrasting effects of storing cord stem cells in public and in private banks. Is storing cord blood the action of a responsible parent? Or the health industry profiting from our fear? Or a really worrying sign of bio-medical elitism which can only widen the gap between rich and poor?
In the midst of this controversial discussion, Michael Doherty maintains that “Over 50 per cent of our clients are medical scientists – doctors, biologists and so on. And of the others, 45 per cent come to us very well informed.”
Michael Doherty and Medicare Bio Health are quietly proud of the fact that theirs was the first (and only) commercial company in Ireland to be granted a licence to procure cord blood, and had to comply with the European directive on the matter.
The Irish bloods collected by Medicare Bio Health are then stored by Future Health Technologies Ltd at its facility near Nottingham, in the UK. “We would have a number of thousand we collected,” says Michael Doherty.
“We were getting 30 or 50 clients a month in the early years. Now it’s dropped to about 15-30.”
Rates are quite straightforward, and include the years of storage: a one-off payment of €2,450 for a single child and identical twins; €4,410 for non-identical twins.
However, it is not all plain sailing. The argument comes in three parts. Is it ethical to freeze stem cells for the sole use of the child and, perhaps, of his family? Is it worth freezing the stem cells of someone with no known genetic health issues, when the chance of them being used are so small? And can the commercial companies even ensure the stem cells will be usable should the need arise?