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Stem cell storage at birth – an investment for life

 In Stem Cell Uses

A new pregnancy is a new beginning. A child that you will nurture and protect to not only ensure they get the best possible start when they enter the world but also to help them go on to lead a healthy and happy life.

One of the most effective methods for safeguarding your child’s health is to store their stem cells at birth. Being able to bank precious stem cells when they are born could be a crucial step in treating or curing an unexpected illness they may face later in life. What better way to have peace of mind than knowing that valuable stem cells that could help treat or cure potential illnesses have been safely banked for a day when your child might need them.

Innovative and rapidly evolving umbilical cord blood stem cell therapy, which uses stem cells collected from the blood of the umbilical cord immediately after birth, was first used in the 1980s and is now part of the successful treatment of more than 80 different diseases. Research into its uses is ongoing, resulting in several exciting clinical developments, including the treatment of ischaemic heart disease and some neurological conditions. Cord blood stem cells are likely to play a major role in our ability to treat human disease as scientists continue to unlock their medical potential.

What exactly are stem cells?

Stem cells are biological cells which, when they divide, have the potential to either remain a stem cell or transform into another type of cell with a more specialised function, such as a muscle cell, red blood cell or a brain cell. Stem cells are the building blocks of the blood and immune systems, which act as a repair and maintenance system for tissue, organs and blood vessels by multiplying and transforming into other body cells, replacing cells that have been damaged in some way.

Stem cells are biological cells which, when they divide, have the potential to either remain a stem cell or transform into another type of cell with a more specialised function, such as a muscle cell, red blood cell or a brain cell.

Stem cells are located in several places throughout the body, but one of the best sources is the blood of the umbilical cord. Extensive research has revealed that umbilical cord blood is a rich source of particularly potent blood-forming stem cells, known as haematopoietic stem cells or HSCs. The presence of HSCs enables cord blood transplants to be used as a substitute for bone marrow transplants. After childbirth, the umbilical cord is normally discarded by medical staff, but saving cord blood and extracting the stem cells is a simple, non-invasive process. The Wharton’s jelly of the umbilical cord (the gelatinous tissue in the cord) is a rich source of a different, but equally important type of stem cell (mesenchymal stem cells or MSC’s).

What can stem cells be used for?

Cord blood stem cells can be used in stem cell transplants to replace diseased cells and rebuild an individual’s blood and immune system. They have been shown to successfully help treat several diseases, ranging from immune deficiencies and blood disorders to some cancers such as leukaemia and lymphoma. Over 35,000 successful transplants have taken place around the world, with the first cord blood transplant in the Middle East performed in 1998.

Donated stem cells can be used to help treat certain genetic conditions that are known to be in the family and often passed from generation to generation, such as sickle cell anaemia or an immune deficiency. In addition, the stem cells collected from one child can be stored to be used to treat siblings, provided they are a correct match. Clinical trials are also looking at the use of cord blood stem cells in regenerative medicine, for example in the treatment of autism in children.

Doctors select cord blood units for use in transplants based on quality measures, such as the number of cells or total nucleated cells (TNCs) and the number of stem cells (CD34+ cells) present in each unit. Too few cells and the collection may not be viable for use in a transplant.

What is cord blood banking?

Cord blood banking involves collecting and storing the vital umbilical cord blood stem cells for future medical use. You pay to store your baby’s cord blood in a private cord blood bank. Private cord blood banks are attracting more and more parents in the Middle East with most private banks that serve the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region based in the UK or Asia.

Cord blood banking involves collecting and storing the vital umbilical cord blood stem cells for future medical use.

Once you have decided that you want to collect and store your baby’s stem cells, the cord blood bank needs to be notified ideally four to six weeks before your due date (or earlier) so that you can register and arrangements can be put in place.

All mums-to-be who wish to store umbilical cord blood must be screened and tested for any evidence of infection. This means answering a series of health and lifestyle questions, designed to determine which tests are needed. A sample of your blood is then taken after the birth. Usually this is done at an appropriate time on the same day as the birth, but if that is not possible then the sample must be taken for testing within seven days of delivery.

Diseases that are tested for include: HIV, hepatitis B and C and syphilis. In certain circumstances, other tests such as human T-lymphotropic virus type I (HTLV-I) testing may be required, depending on the information provided at the initial registration.

How are stem cells collected?

The cell collection process takes place immediately after birth and is painless and safe for both mother and baby. The procedure is carried out by a trained and licensed healthcare professional – a private obstetrician, doctor, midwife or an assigned phlebotomist (someone trained to take blood) at the hospital or birthing centre. Home births are discouraged in the UAE because midwives are not permitted to work outside the hospital.

As soon as your baby is safely delivered, whether naturally or via C-section, and the umbilical cord is clamped, it is wiped with antiseptic and a needle is inserted into one of the veins in the umbilical cord to withdraw blood. The collected umbilical cord blood is then transferred to the specialist laboratory or cord blood bank, using special containers that are able to maintain the appropriate temperature and integrity of the cord blood unit.

The red blood cells are then removed from the white blood cells in a process known as volume reduced processing prior to freezing. This is because red blood cells have been associated with harmful side effects if too many of them are present in a cord blood stem cell transplant. It is the industry standard method of processing employed by the majority of public and private banks around the world. This is a safer method of freezing and storing stem cells as there is less damage to the sample when it is thawed without red blood cells present (which do not survive the freezing & thawing process) and can contribute to post transplant complications.

This process is known as volume reduction.

Storing the stem cells – and accessing them in the future

If it meets quality standards, the cord blood is then cryopreserved for long-term storage. It is important that the cord blood is stored as soon as possible following collection. Ideally the cord blood should arrive at the laboratory and be processed within 72 hours of birth. The shorter the time between the birth and cryopreservation the better, to maintain the quality of the cord blood taken.

Ideally the cord blood should arrive at the laboratory and be processed within 72 hours of birth.

It is also possible to collect and store umbilical cord tissue, a segment of the umbilical cord itself. This is a rich source of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), which are the most popular type of stem cells being used in current research and show great promise for treating a variety of auto-immune disorders and injuries to muscle or bone.

Once frozen, the precious stem cells can be stored for many decades, depending on the quality of the cryopreservation procedure. If the time comes when you need the stem cells for a particular treatment, retrieval is straightforward. Simply contact your cord blood bank, fill out a request form and provide permission for the bank to liaise with the doctor who is dealing with your case. Everything is then arranged to make sure the cells are shipped and prepared for the date of treatment.

Once you have taken that life-changing step to start a family, protecting your baby’s health and wellbeing suddenly becomes a top priority. Storing stem cells collected from your newborn’s umbilical cord is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to capture a valuable resource that could, in years to come, turn out to be a life-saver. A simple, pain-free procedure that could well be the smartest investment you have ever made.


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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