Why banking on cord blood isn't necessarily a good idea

CARLY WEEKS From Saturday’s Globe and Mail Published Saturday, May. 26, 2012 6:00AM EDT

Its a straightforward pitch to expecting parents: Pay a private clinic to store your babys stem-cell-rich umbilical-cord blood, and rest assured that he or she has protection for life. Multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, diabetes, traumatic brain injury, stroke, brain tumours and even Alzheimers disease are just a few of the ailments stem cells may be able to treat or cure in the future.

The optimism is contagious. Tens of thousands of Canadian families have made the decision to pay thousands of dollars to bank cord blood. But beyond the websites and brochures featuring photos of smiling babies and testimonials from families, a different picture is emerging of an industry that uses inflated arguments, aggressive marketing and misleading information to convince parents to buy in.

I dont know if the families are walking away with an entirely honest picture of what theyre buying, says John Doyle, former head of blood and marrow transplants at Torontos Hospital for Sick Children. I dont think that parents truthfully understand the limits.

Theres a long-standing history of overinflated promises by the cord-blood banks, agrees Donna Wall, director of the blood and marrow transplant program at CancerCare Manitoba. I could have retired many times over if I had gotten into the business. Its just not the right thing to do.

Full of promise

The stem cells found in umbilical-cord blood have the ability to turn into red or white blood cells or blood-clotting cells. For that reason, they offer promising treatments for leukemia, lymphoma, sickle cell disease and other blood, bone, immune and metabolic disorders.

Adults also carry these stem cells, which is why Canadian Blood Services has a campaign to recruit people to join OneMatch, its network to connect stem-cell and bone-marrow donors to patients. But finding a suitable donor is much more difficult than simply matching blood types. Patient and donor cells must match 10 out of 10 human leukocyte antigens or proteins found on the surface of cells. Donor registries are limited and seldom diverse enough to serve patients of all ethnicities.

Hence the excitement over umbilical-cord-blood stem cells: Not only are they young and less likely to lead to complications, they need not match as precisely as adult cells.

This has just opened up so many more possibilities to patients in need, says Sue Smith, executive director for stem cells at Canadian Blood Services.

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Why banking on cord blood isn't necessarily a good idea