Cord blood banks face mixed welcome

Dubai’s first community cord blood bank has set its sights on lowering the incident of genetic disease in the UAE through stem cell research. Privately-owned cell banks, however, are at the centre of an escalating row over their worth.

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By  Joanne Baldd Published  July 10, 2006

Dubai’s first community cord blood bank has set its sights on lowering the incident of genetic disease in the UAE through stem cell research. The Dubai Cord Blood and Research Centre, based at Al Wasl Hospital, revealed its plans to tackle widespread conditions such as thalassaemia, through use of community cord-blood donations. Established at a cost of AED 17.5 million, the Centre is the first community cord-blood bank in the region. Dr Mahmoud Taleb Al Ali, head of research at DCBRC, said: “The country is in need of genetic research with the number of disorders here. “Stem cells are the root of any genetic research and the use of cord blood removes any ethical questions that might arise.” The Centre plans to offer both private and public banking facilities, and hopes to create a community supply sufficient to support at-risk patients, by encouraging parents to donate unwanted cord blood. The blood could potentially be used in future transplantations. “We are getting a good response and we hope to increase the number of donors in the coming years,” said Dr Asma Ibrahim Al Asad, directory and laboratory manager of DCRC. “The donors have the choice of keeping stem cells for their own use or allowing others to benefit as well.” It’s a move that has drawn praise from the medical community. “A community facility is a very appropriate proposal,” said Dr Robert Thurer, chief academic officer at Harvard Medical School Dubai Centre. “In the event of illness, patients are far more likely to be able to access the blood they need if a community programme is in place. Like a blood bank, it should be available to all.” The Centre’s launch coincided with news of a private stem cell bank opening in Dubai Biotechnology and Research Park. Cryo-Save, a European company, will launch in August and promises a “world-class private facility where (parents) can store their newborn baby’s cord blood cells.” But while community cell banks continue to attract approval, privately-owned cell banks are at the centre of an escalating row over their worth. Recetn weeks saw the London-based Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) release a scathing attack on commercial cord blood banking, accusing banks of using “emotive literature” to drive parents to use the procedure. A RCOG panel said there was “insufficient evidence” to recommend the practice to families at low-risk of passing on genetic disorders, instead recommending the collection of cord blood through public sector banks for at-risk families. “The value of a private store is questionable, because the chance of a child needing treatment is very small; it’s a very low likelihood,” agrees Dr Thurer. “It’s far better to concentrate efforts on a community effort.” The RCOG report also expressed concern over the “considerable logistical burden” placed on “already overstretched” maternity staff by cord blood collection, as most private banks rely on the treating hospital to perform the procedure. Cells collection usually takes place “when there is a risk of post-partum haemorrhage and when both mother and baby require one-to-one care,” the Royal College warns. “The use of midwifery or medical staff may distract them from the care of mothers and babies.” But private cell banks disagree. Dr Cherie Daly is the medical director and UAE manager of SmartCell International, and has worked in the UAE for more than two years. “Cord blood collection is the most simple procedure,” she says. “Most of the Gynaecologists in the (UAE) region have performed at least one collection, and they don’t have an issue with it. “There is absolutely no interference with the birthing process.” Dr Daly adds that parents should be allowed to make their own decision on the value of storing cord blood. “We don’t know what blood-related diseases stem cells may be able to treat in the future. For parents, it’s an insurance policy. They should be allowed time to make an informed choice.”

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