A baby’s gift that keeps giving
Stem cell storer Smart Cells is growing overseas but struggling with attitudes in the NHS.
Once discarded as medical waste, the blood left in the umbilical cord after a baby’s delivery is now considered a rich source of stem cells similar to those in bone marrow, and can be used to treat childhood diseases such as leukaemia and cerebral palsy.
Smart Cells, a British company that has been collecting and storing such cells since 2000, has seen demand for its service grow in Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Portugal and Greece, and in the affluent Middle Eastern market of Dubai. But parents in Britain have been slower to see its benefits.
“Despite high levels of education and affluence, it has not been widely adopted in northern Europe, including Scandinavia, the Netherlands and the UK,” says Shamshad Ahmed, founder of Smart Cells. “We’ve seen steady growth over the past decade [5pc a year] outside Britain.
“The uptake is highest in countries which have a larger private medical care sector, where people are used to paying for medical care and in those Mediterranean countries where the culture towards children is more intense,” he said.
The other barrier to growth in Britain is the NHS, according to Ahmed, who formed the company, based in West London, with his wife, Fehmina. “The NHS is just not supportive of private companies,” he says.
The company which has an annual turnover of £4m, pulls in 32pc of its revenue from the domestic market, 30pc from southern Europe, 28pc from the Middle East and Gulf and 10pc from Hong Kong.
As most NHS hospitals will not allow midwives to collect cord blood on the request of the parents, Smart Cells sends a phlebotomist to the labour ward to drain tissue after the baby is born, as the placenta comes away, and a courier then transports it back to the Smart Cells laboratory, via a temperature-controlled kit, where it is then frozen for up to 25 years. The process costs £2,500 per child.
“When we first started there was a lot of controversy surrounding stem cell storage — people felt it was a waste of time and we were scaremongering — but 30,000 transplants have now been completed worldwide,” he says.
Stored stem cells have been used in transplants to treat more than 70 different diseases including lymphoma, sickle-cell disease, and some metabolic disorders. Unlike marrow, which is obtained through a painful medical procedure and replenished by the body, this method of collection is simple and not directly from the child.
But access to this service can come down to one individual — despite the mother’s wishes. “Most of the reasons why we are not allowed to collect full stop is based on the views of the head of department. For example at Princess Alexandra the head of midwifery was against cord blood collectiond via a private company, she moved to Queens Hospital in Romford and changed their policy too.”
“In certain hospitals, there is a stem cell collection procedure and public bank for ill children — but this doesn’t give the parents the choice to store for their own family.
“In many cases such as leukaemia the stem cells of one healthy child can help save the life of his or her sibling.” The health alert last week over babies who were poisoned in neonatal care units via nutritional drips, used to feed premature newborns, could also trigger a concern around external services and procurement. The contaminated batch killed one baby in London’s St Thomas’s.
“In this case there was no liability on the part of the hospital and such a situation could have regretfully also occurred with something like outside catering,” said Ahmed. “But given the way the NHS do behave and at times get into panic, it may have a further impact on other companies being allowed in.”
Smart Cells, which once stored blood for Darcey Bussell, the ballerina and Strictly Come Dancing judge, encountererd its fair share of setbacks with the global economic downturn.The science was popular in southern Europe until the eurozone crisis put in a dent in demand for its service.
The rise of the internet also bred more competition, with a series of digital-only services springing up. “A handful of cowboy outfits sprang up but have fallen by the wayside,” said Ahmed. And of course reputable organisations have set up in competition as well, such as Virgin’s Health Bank.
While Smart Cells has collected from 70 different countries, breaking the UK will rely on referrals from parent to parent, said Fehmina Ahmed. “We need people to understand the positives,” she says, “and spread the word.”