Cord blood banking: Why it may be a part of everyone’s future

 In Our Transplants, Stem Cell News

It is now nearly 30 years since the first successful cord blood stem cell transplant took place. In just a short space of time, this ground-breaking branch of medicine has made considerable progress, with over 35,000 cord blood stem cell transplants having been carried out to date, successfully treating over 80 different diseases. There is no doubt that stem cell therapy is going to play a vital role in the future of medicine and that storing your baby’s umbilical cord blood today will give them access to the benefits of this most amazing medical resource in the future.

That first successful stem cell transplant using umbilical cord blood took place in 1988 in France, when a young boy with a genetic disorder called Fanconi’s Anaemia was given stem cells from his new born sister. Soon after, in 1992, the first public umbilical cord blood bank was established in New York, blazing the trail for the opening of cord blood banks, both public and private, across the globe.

Scientists were fascinated by the ability of stem cells to replace damaged cells or transform themselves into other types of cells with a more specialised function and act as a repair and maintenance system for tissue, organs and blood vessels. Initially cord blood stem cell therapy was used effectively in the treatment of blood disorders such as sickle cell disease, immune disorders and certain forms of cancer such as leukaemia and lymphoma. Today the applications of stem cell treatment continue to evolve as scientists discover more and more of its therapeutic benefits.

Scientists were fascinated by the ability of stem cells to replace damaged cells or transform themselves into other types of cells with a more specialised function and act as a repair and maintenance system for tissue, organs and blood vessels.

Recently there have been research breakthroughs which suggest that stem cell therapy could bring about major improvements in the treatment of a number of chronic diseases, including:

Type 1 diabetes: Studies are looking at how cord blood stem cells can help increase the number of regulatory T cells in the blood, helping to keep the immune response stable and prevent it from attacking the insulin-producing beta cells.

Stroke: Scientists have discovered that certain parts of the adult brain are capable of regeneration and are looking at how cord blood stem cells may be able to stimulate this process, helping a patient’s recovery from a stroke by replacing damaged cells or triggering the brain’s cells to carry out their own repairs.

Multiple sclerosis (MS): Stem cell therapy is being looked at as a means of tackling MS in two ways: by replacing the damaged cells of the nervous system with healthy ones and using transplanted stem cells to reboot the body’s own immune system so that it no longer attacks the spinal cord. This involves using chemotherapy treatment to wipe out the harmful cells, before replenishing the system with healthy stem cells in an effort to arrest the progression of the disease.

Autism: Children who suffer from autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have immune dysregulation and increased inflammation, which originates in the gut and leads to an alteration in the structure of the brain. The anti-inflammatory effects of stem cell therapy are being tested as a means for decreasing this inflammation and in turn reducing the symptoms of ASD.

Cerebral palsy: Still in the early stages, current research is looking at how cord blood stem cells may be used to develop into specific types of brain cells and replace the ones damaged by cerebral palsy. The condition affects the motor control centre of the brain, resulting in a lack of full control of physical movement. The aim is to get the stem cells to protect, repair and replace damaged cells before they become completely useless and cause permanent damage.

The aim is to get the stem cells to protect, repair and replace damaged cells before they become completely useless and cause permanent damage.

With research yielding promising results in the treatment of all these conditions and more, cord blood stem cells look to be a very powerful clinical weapon of the future. The remarkable ability of these cells to stimulate the regeneration of other cells (and to transform into special types of cells) is helping scientists to regenerate tissue and even organs in a way that could revolutionise the treatment of conditions such as heart disease and osteoporosis.

The growth of the stem cell industry

Not surprisingly, the umbilical cord blood banking market has expanded rapidly in the past decade.

According to a 2017 report, the cord blood banking services market accounted for USD 12.5bn in 2015 and is expected to reach USD 19.3bn by 2022. This growth is driven by a number of factors, which include the increasing number of diseases that stem cell therapy is being used to treat; the advancement in cord blood banking technologies; the rising awareness of the advantages of cord blood banking services; and the increase in the number of cases of life-threatening genetic disorders.

The market is dominated by private enterprise, with public cord blood banks making up only one third of the total global market. Private banks offer a high level of assurance and security, give complete ownership rights to the parents, and are more flexible in the collection of cord blood – all of which is likely to keep private blood banks as the most popular choice for stem cell storage in the future.

Cord blood bank innovations

As the market continues to grow, cord blood stem cell research now focuses not only on investigating new treatment possibilities but also on the methods of stem cell collection and storage to keep them at their most viable.

Once the cord blood has been collected, it has to be processed to prepare it for storage. The blood contains three components: plasma, red blood cells and the important buffy coat layer, which contains the stem cells. Processing the cord blood involves removing the plasma, which doesn’t contain any stem cells, and also the red blood cells, which aren’t needed in stem cell therapy and can actually create harmful side effects. The red blood cells can burst during freezing and storing at low temperatures (known as cryopreservation), releasing potentially toxic iron from the haemoglobin in the red blood cells.

Stem cell processing is very important as it can affect the number and type of stem cells that are available, the size of the sample and the number of times it can be used.

Stem cell processing is very important as it can affect the number and type of stem cells that are available, the size of the sample and the number of times it can be used.

These are some of the most significant developments in this area:

Automated processing systems: The processing method has a major impact on the quality of the stem cell sample collected. Automated processing systems are proving very effective at red blood cell and plasma depletion and are constantly being updated and revised to bring many benefits such as processing efficiency, speed of delivery and cost savings. The major players in these automated processors include systems such as AutoXpress (AXP), Biosafe (who developed the SEPAX system) and Macopharma which produced the Macopress Smart.

More efficient storage: As cord blood processing becomes more efficient, the stem cell yield for transplant grows and with it comes a growing need for storage. Removing the plasma and red blood cells helps to reduce the volume of the final sample and, therefore, reduces the storage requirement by as much as 75% of the original blood volume. This means that more concentrated samples can be stored, taking up less space. This will have important consequences as the technology develops and the demand for cord blood storage booms.

Greater investment: There are currently over 5,000 registered clinical trials investigating the application of stem cell treatments for hundreds of different conditions, many of which, up until this point, have been incurable. Such substantial clinical backing is attracting a growing number of serious investors into the cord blood banking marketplace. In June 2014 a USD 15m grant was awarded to a team at Duke University in the US to investigate the application of cord blood stem cell treatments for illness such as stroke, autism and other brain disorders. This money is the first instalment in the funding of a five-year project costing USD 41m. This sort of investment is crucial to fund the groundbreaking research that will, in the long term, enable a wider number of treatments to be made available to a greater number of people.

What may lie ahead

As innovative research continues to unveil new applications for stem cell therapy and the technologies for collecting and storing cord blood stem cells advance, all backed by major investment, it becomes increasingly clear that this therapy will play an integral part in medical treatment in the years ahead.

By the time your children are in the position you’re in now, considering their own children’s future, the practice of collecting and storing umbilical cord blood from newborns in order to safeguard their future wellbeing will be familiar and mainstream.

About the author: Shamshad Ahmed, CEO and Founder of Smart Cells International.
Shamshad Ahmed is CEO and Founder of Smart Cells International Ltd. Opening in 2000, Smart Cells became the UK’s first private cord blood company – its goal to give parents more access to potentially life-saving treatment for their families. It is one of the UK’s largest private banks, operating across the globe and storing over 50,000 cord blood samples from people in over 70 countries. Shamshad started his career in finance and foreign exchange at Citibank before moving over to the world of clinical trials. He holds a BA from Nottingham Trent University, and he has been a member of the Young President’s Organization since 2008 – having served on the board for a number of those years.

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