Stem cells are the basic cell units which can differentiate into any type of cell. It is the core unit (blank cells) from which all cells in the body develops and has significant potential in treating certain degenerative diseases. The umbilical cord and placenta are rich in stems cells which can be collected and stored for future use.
This has become a popular option for parents who want to offer their child a better chance of treating certain diseases which may benefit from stem cell therapy. Additionally, it may also offer the siblings and parents other therapeutic options in the event of certain diseases.
Stems Cells in the Placenta and Umbilical Cord
Stems cells are abundant in the placenta and umbilical cord but these are multipotent adult (somatic) stems cells. These are different from embyronic stem cells which can differentiate into any type of cell. Somatic cells may only differentiate into certain types of stem cells. With the ability to now “reprogram” somatic stem cells into pluripotent cells, like embryonic cells, the application for umbilical cord stem cells has greatly increased.
Collecting the umbilical cord stem cells has a wide range of therapeutic applications, some of which have not as yet been fully harnessed. However the rapidly developing field of stem cell therapy may mean that within a few years, many more diseases may be treated by this modality.
Hematopoietic Stem Cells and Leukaemia
Leukaemia (US ~ leukemia) is a cancer of the bone marrow. The cells in the bone marrow are stem cells which differentiate to form different types of blood cells. Cancer and the treatments for leukaemia may destroy these bone marrow cells and new cells will need to be transplanted. Finding a suitable donor can be a difficult task as it is essential to identify a suitable match (histocompatibility) to reduce the chances of rejection.
Hematopoietic stem cells are plentiful in the blood within the umbilical cord and placenta and these can be used for bone marrow transplants. Since these stem cells are sourced from the leukaemia sufferer at birth, there is no chance of rejection. These umbilical cord stem cells could also be used for siblings and parents with certain blood disorders as well although there is no guarantee that it will be a perfect match.
Leukaemia is not the only disease that may be treated by stem cell therapy. Advancements in the field of stem cell therapy has been opening new avenues for the treatment of other diseases and medical conditions.
Umbilical Cord Stem Cell Collection Procedure and Costs
Parents who wish to have their child’s stem cells collected and stored need to inform a private storage bank before childbirth. After registering for this service, a collection kit will be handed over to your obstetrician. Immediately after giving birth, the obstetrician will collect as much blood as possible from the umbilical cord. On average, a 100ml of umbilical cord blood is sufficient.
This blood is then sent to the private cell bank where the blood is processed in a laboratory and the different cells are separated and stored. Long term storage involves cryogenic freezing, usually for a period of 20 years, and this blood can be requested at any time that stem cells may be required for future medical applications.
The costs vary but in South Africa, the total cost for collection, processing and storage of the blood is approximately R20,000 ($2,500). This fee will ensure that the blood is stored for a period of 20 years. To make it more affordable, there are also monthly payment plans but the total costs over 20 years can far exceed the once-off payment. Medical aids do not pay for this service and the parents are therefore liable for the entire cost upfront.