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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 February 2007, 10:11 GMT
Q&A: cord blood banking
Image of an umbilical cord
Umbilical cord blood is rich in therapeutic stem cells
Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson is set to launch a company which will let families bank and store stem cells from their child's umbilical cord.

What is cord blood banking?

A handful of UK companies already offer such a service, where parents can elect to bank some of their umbilical-cord blood.

The cord blood must be collected immediately after the baby is delivered. It can then be put into cold storage for future use.

Why might parents want to bank cord blood?

Parents may decide to bank the blood as insurance in case their child gets ill later in life.

Cord blood is rich in stem cells that can treat diseases such as leukaemia.

Scientists believe that future medical advances will mean stem cells can be used to cure diseases such as Alzheimer's and cancer.

Therefore, some believe it could also be a good insurance policy for their own future health.

Why is it contentious?

A report from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists published last year advised doctors and midwives not to take part in commercial blood collection as they needed to focus on the welfare of the mother and baby.

Also, in practice, the blood is highly unlikely to be used - the chance of an individual using personal cord blood for a blood cell disorder before the age of 20 is estimated to be between 1/20,000 to 1/37,000.

The RCOG also pointed out that the NHS collects up to 2,000 cord blood samples every year for storage in a public bank that can be used by anyone who needs a cord blood cell transplant.

And there is concern that unless a specially trained member of staff is designated to collect the blood there is a risk that the sample could be contaminated or mislabelled, which could lead to legal action.

NHS cord blood banks are covered for this by the NHS Litigation Authority, but private cord blood banks are not.

Why does Virgin think it is important to offer its service?

Private companies already offer cord blood banking for the sum or about 1,500.

Virgin says its service is unique because it will offer a charitable element, allowing the NHS to use some of stem cells the company stores.

Sir Richard explained: "We will take an individual's cord blood and we will divide it in two.

"So, part of it will go into a national blood centre that anybody can get access to. And the other half will be put aside for the child."

He said this should help particularly high risk ethnic groups who are prone to conditions that can be treated with stem cells but who may have difficulty finding well-matched cord blood.

He believes the initiative will also help drive further research into regenerative medicine and treatments with stem cells.

Mothers can donate their umbilical cord blood to the NHS Cord Blood Bank with the aim of helping others. The NHS collects about 2,000 cord blood samples per year.

What does the government think?

It advises against private cord blood collection for treating children from healthy families with low risk of disease.

It says the NHS Cord Blood Bank already collects sufficient cord blood to treat children who may need it for treatment.

But a spokesman added: "We welcome the Virgin Health Bank's plans to increase the availability of cord blood for research and treating patients.

"This will build on the 100m that we are investing in all forms of stem cell research over the next two years.

"Parents wishing to bank their baby's cord blood should still discuss this carefully with their midwife and delivery team in advance."




SEE ALSO
Warning over cord blood banking
13 Jun 06 |  Health
Umbilical cord 'stem cell' hope
18 Aug 05 |  Health
Concern over cord blood banking
13 May 05 |  Health

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