Though still in its nascent stage, the idea of Stem Cell Banking by preserving the Cord Blood and Umbilical Cord Tissue of your new born baby is fast entering the consciousness of Indian couples. Keeping the need and benefits of Stem Cell Banking aside for a while, the path to arrive at the right decision and then choosing the right bank is full of innumerable hurdles, uncertainties, scattered information and unavailability of true sources of knowledge.
I am no expert on Stem Cell Banking, but any experience can be worth sharing if it can provide some information, maybe slight food for thought. But one experience must be treated as just ‘one experience’; it may not be perfect in every sense but can still turn out to be slightly useful if nothing else. And what I can definitely do is, keep the information simple, direct and put it across using words which we understand and not what ‘haematologists’ and ‘stem cell bankers’ talk about.
I won’t delve into technical mumbo-jumbo, let the experts on Stem Cell Banking in India enjoy that. For a parent, what is more important is what I wish to talk about.
What is stem cell banking?
I’ll stick to what Stem Cell Banking in India means in the context of new born babies, which is to preserve the cord blood (this is the blood left in a newborn baby’s umbilical cord and placenta, which otherwise would have gone waste) and umbilical cord tissue of your baby right at the time of his/her birth, i.e. at the time of delivery.
Why two? What is the relevance of cord blood and umbilical cord tissue?
Stem cells derived from cord blood can be used to treat diseases related to blood like blood cancer, Thalassemia, etc. Stem cells derived from umbilical cord tissue (mesenchymal) can be used to treat diseases related to tissues, muscles and organs like liver, kidney, etc. This kind of somes up Stem Cell Banking in India.
Why Stem Cell Banking?
Well, on growing up if unfortunately a child gets infected with certain diseases, Stem Cell treatment could be able to cure the same. Right now, it is claimed over 70 diseases can be cured using it including certain cancers, diabetes, etc. Since cord blood and umbilical cord tissue are the richest sources of stem cells, preserving the same sounds like a logical decision.
Stem Cell Transplant
While Stem Cell transplant takes place, there is a factor/count called HLA that is matched. A baby’s own stem cells are a perfect match, HLA 6/6. Similarly, it is a very close match for a sibling too. This implies one child’s stem cell would be a very good match for the sibling too.
You can use a donor’s stem cell only if the HLA match is sufficient, which is very difficult. To put it simply, it is like blood group matching, you can only use blood group if it matches, is same blood type.
Are there other sources of stem cells in body?
Yes, stem cells can be derived from bone marrow, and few other options are there too. But these sources are not as rich a source of stem cells as cord blood and umbilical tissue are.
Stem Cell treatment availability in India and World
In general, the stem cell treatment is an evolving method of treatment and has not yet arrived at a point where every hospital has the capability to do so. In India there are hospitals treating patients using stem cells and I have personally met a family who have a child treated and cured of Thalassemia by a hospital in Delhi.
The future looks promising and more diseases will hopefully be cured through stem cells by more and more hospitals.
Stem cell banks in India and what they offer
A quick Google search will show that there are many stem cell banks offering storage facilities in India. They all have more or less similar offerings though they may be packaging it differently.
Difference in what is being offered and promised and what is being delivered
Now, to me this is the critical point. All stem cell banks in India use fancy terms, scientific nomenclature and ‘global free delivery’ services but when checked whether they have actually done so, they would have no example to quote. Can’t blame them either since the whole system in India has just started and focus so far has been more on getting the cord blood and tissue preservation then using the same for treatment.
Treatment is the Key
Stem Cell Banking sounds so good to hear, but the real thing is actual usage and treatment using the stem cells. Some of the Stem Cell Banks do mention list of hospitals and actual treatments which have happened in India and that is what could be most important factor.
Where stem cell banks will confuse you
All stem cell banks say they are the best, which is fine since every marketer says that. But if they realize that you have some knowledge and you may be exploring other banks too, they will use everything in their might to discredit the other.
- Global Linkage:
They all back up their claims of being good enough based on their tie-ups with some global/international player. Some of the claims stem cell banks on India make are actually about the partner, like ‘N’ number of samples that they have cryo-preserved successfully.
They all flaunt impressive set of “accreditations” but as it stands, there is no accreditation body in India for stem cell banks and there appear to be no rules, regulations and guidelines to govern and monitor stem cell banks in India. Globally, there are some accreditation bodies.
Single and Dual Storage
This is one of biggest bones of contention and point of confusion since there is only one stem cell bank offering dual storage in India. Dual storage should mean they will have two identical samples for you, one stored in each of the two facilities. This looks like a double ‘insurance’, in case one sample is destroyed for some reason the other one is still available for you to use.
Truth behind Dual Storage
- If offering dual storage was such a plus point, why only a handful companies are offering it. Even at a global level, I found one such stem cell bank in Australia, one in Europe and one in US and this number didn’t impress me. Moreover, none of them categorically states on their website what exactly they mean by dual storage.
- Even an intensive Google search didn’t reveal any good technical papers scientific research document, etc. for someone to check, understand and learn about the exact process and guidelines on stem cell storage, single or dual.
- One of the stwm cell banks, which is not offering dual storage, told me that dual storage is a myth. Their sales team said that technically it’s impossible. What can be done and what the companies offering dual storage are doing is: in one facility they will keep the cord blood cell sample and in the other facility they will keep the umbilical tissue same. Since both these samples will give different sets of stem cells, practically there is no dual storage. I did some research and called them back to say that there claim/logic seems to be flawed and unsupported. Then they made me talk to their lab head, the scientist, who after 5 min discussion with me ended up agreeing that cord blood cell quantity and the science behind it is such that it can’t be stored in two samples, however, umbilical cord tissue can have two samples and hence can be stored at two places, quantity-wise and science-wise. Thus agreeing dual storage is in fact possible, albeit in a limited manner. I asked for them to email me links to research documents and scientific studies to back/support their claim, which though promised by them were never sent to me.
- The stem cell bank offering dual storage has staked the claim that both cord blood and umbilical tissue can be segregated into two samples and hence storage at two different places thus ensuring two samples for each of them is available. However, after 30min discussion, they also confirmed that for the cord blood, one sample would be of less quantity (5ml) and other will be bigger (20ml, I guess). So if 20ml sample gets destroyed, you still have 5ml sample. Considering 5ml appears to be very small sample and what if more blood was needed, their response was that “clinical expansion” is done at time of extraction (free of cost, by all the stem cell banks) and this will have no bearing on the final quantity of stem cells.
Whether to go for Stem Cell Banking or not?
Talk to your doctor, check with your friends, talk to all the banks, take a call and get the best offer for stem cell banking. There doesn’t seem to be just one right or wrong answer, it will boil down to your decision and just stick to that.