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Friday, 15 September, 2000, 23:43 GMT 00:43 UK
Umbilical blood storage offered in UK
Midwife, baby and mother
The blood can be taken just after birth
UK parents can now pay to have their baby's umbilical cord blood stored, in case the child develops serious diseases later.

But some experts have warned the practice may hold hidden dangers for the child involved.

The UK Cord Blood Bank charges just under 500 to transport and store the blood, taken from the placenta and umbilical cord just after birth.

The blood contains "stem cells", which can be harvested and frozen.

Children who develop cancers such as leukaemia and lymphoma often need bone marrow transplants after attempts to eradicate the cancer with strong chemotherapy.

If matching bone marrow cannot be obtained from a relative, then the search for a match can be lengthy and often fruitless.

'Ultimate health insurance'

But stem cell from the cord blood will always be a perfect match, and can be thawed out and delivered like a blood transfusion.

Julie-Anne Ryan, who is running the UK Cord Blood Bank, said: "We are calling it the ultimate health insurance.

"Obviously, we hope it's something that our customers will never have to use."

Banking cord blood is becoming increasingly popular in the US and other countries.

Prospective customers are sent a kit which includes a blood bag and a needle.

She is hopeful maternity units will help parents by extracting the blood for them after the birth, although she admits some doctors and midwives may be resistant.

At the moment, the blood would be sent for storage to the US, although the company hopes to set up its own laboratory in the UK shortly.

But experts at the Leukaemia Research Fund urged parents to be "extremely cautious" before going ahead with cord blood banking.

Recent research carried out by the charity suggests that pre-cancerous cells can be found from birth onwards in children who go on to develop leukaemia.

If this is the case, returning umbilical blood to the same child may lead to renewed cancer a few years later - and by that time, the child may be at an age where chemotherapy is not so effective.

Of course, if a match can be found with another baby's umbilical cord blood, no such difficulties arise.

Chief information officer Ken Campbell said: "There is very clear experimental evidence of the presence of these pre-leukaemic cells at birth.

"This may render the use of a sick child's own preserved cord blood unsuitable."

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