After a baby is born the amazing umbilical cord that helped sustain the child for more than nine months is ordinarily disposed of as medical waste. However the umbilical cord (and the blood contained therein) is actually a rich source of stem cells; stem cells that are frequently used for treating a variety of life threatening illnesses. While stem cells can be obtained from a variety of sources, those from the umbilical cord are less likely to be rejected than those sourced from bone marrow, for example.
Both the cord blood and tissue can be cryogenically preserved for use at a later date thereby giving the child and their families access to these life-saving stem cells at a later date, should the need arise. So why don’t more people privately bank their cord blood? The short answer is knowledge or lack thereof about the current application of stem cell therapies and the fact that such stem cells have been used for decades as standard treatment for at least 80 illnesses. And with further research and clinical trials underway, the variety of applications is only set to increase with time.
Many countries around the world have public cord blood banks, that is, places where individuals can donate their cord blood stem cells after birth. In fact, in some countries, the private storage of cord blood is discouraged in favour of donation to the public bank. But for those who desperately need stem cell transplants to treat a life-threatening disease, finding a matching donor in a public bank can be difficult. It is estimated that around 75% of donations to public banks are disposed of as unviable and that the amount of storage is rather low. This is why many argue that the private storage of stem cells is the only way to guarantee prompt access to stem cells that are 100% match to the child in the future.
In Hong Kong the options available for parents with respect to the storage or donation of their own child’s cord blood and tissue are largely dictated by where they are planning on giving birth. Only those giving birth in the private sector can store privately and only those giving birth in the public sector can donate to the public bank.
Donation of stem cells to a public bank
Donation to public banks is a truly wonderful thing as these stem cells may be used to save a life some day. However, there are a number of considerations in taking this route.
In Hong Kong, people are precluded from donating to the Hong Kong Red Cross public cord blood bank unless they are giving birth in a public hospital. Even then, they need to ensure that they are giving birth in one of the five allocated hospitals that facilitate donation and only on certain days of the week between certain hours. This can be problematic as the choice of hospital is dictated by the mother’s residential address.
Furthermore, there are certain restrictions on who can donate to the public bank. A key criterion that precludes many people (both expatriate and local) from donating is the fact that you must not have lived in the UK or Europe for any extended period of time between the 80s and 90s.
Should you make the decision to donate cord blood stem cells to Hong Kong’s public bank, it is important to bear in mind that the Red Cross provides cord blood to anyone who needs it without giving priority to the donor’s child.
Family storage of stem cells in private banks for personal use Private hospitals in Hong Kong allow mothers to store their baby’s cord blood in private facilities, but unfortunately there is no way to donate to the Red Cross cord-blood bank. Both private hospitals and obstetricians charge a fee for collection which can range between HK$1,000 and HK$4,000. This cost is in addition to the fee charged by private companies to collect, transport and store the samples.
There are around five private cord blood banks with laboratories in Hong Kong. While some of those banks may hold industry certification (awards issued by bodies run for and by the industry itself), cord-blood banking isn’t regulated in Hong Kong and private banks aren’t officially licensed.
The biggest challenge when trying to choose between local providers is identifying what the fees include. The fees in Hong Kong vary greatly from as low as HK$12,800 to in excess of HK$90,000. The number of years of storage is one aspect, but some also charge different fees based on extracting stem cells right away or storing the tissue whole and extracting stem cells later. Most private banks in Hong Kong also charge a considerable fee to facilitate transportation of the stem cells to another country, if required, at a later date.
Opting for the international route
Hong Kong parents-to-be who decide that they would like to take out the insurance of storing their new-born’s cord blood and tissue can opt to use internationally based storage facilities – enabling them to access facilities that are independently monitored by governmental bodies such as those in the UK.
The UK is widely regarded as one of the most stable environments for the long-term storage of stem cells. The governmental bodies that monitor the private stem cell banks (the HTA and MHRA) also oversee treatment centres and hospitals. They ensure the physical robustness of such facilities on an on-going basis as well as that an appropriate infrastructure is in place should such company financially fail – thereby protecting client assets for the long term – an important consideration for those who look at storing such assets for 25 years or longer.
Collecting your child’s stem cells from cord blood is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Due to the time sensitive nature of the collection procedure (i.e. it needs to occur immediately after a child’s birth) it is vital that pregnant women and their partners fully understand their options prior to the delivery.The collection procedure is incredibly simple but careful planning is imperative as the collection needs to be done within moments of the birth. Unfortunately there are no second chances to gather these precious cells. Athena Life is a family-run business with personal experience of the difference it makes to have access to matching stem cells when your family’s health takes a turn for the worse. We want to make sure that all expectant parents know what cord blood banking and stem cell storage is. We want to help you understand the options available and to provide the best possible service options with regard to safeguarding the future health of your children and family.
The collection procedure of the cord blood and tissue is exactly the same wherever you ultimately chose to store the samples, although the quality of the collection kit will vary between providers. In terms of the safety of sending these samples overseas there is little to no risk to the integrity of the cells in transit. All samples (as with blood samples) are transferred at ambient temperature and some service providers ensure thorough tracking of the assets until they reach the destination laboratory. Once there the important work begins to extract the stem cells and to prepare the assets so that they can be stored cryogenically, normally for 25 years or more.