What are stem cells?
“Stem cells are considered to be the basic building blocks of our body, blood and bones,” explains director of Lazaron Biotechnologies, Louis Rehrl “They’re often referred to as ‘master cells’, which have the potential to become almost any other cell in the body. They have the ability to replenish themselves as needed and can replace other blood cells in the body that are abnormal or have been destroyed by disease. Currently, stem cells are mainly being used to treat blood disorders and blood cancers like leukaemia. Other diseases such as anaemia, inherited platelet abnormalities, metabolic disorders, inherited immune disorders, lymphomas, myeloproliferative disorders (diseases of the bone marrow), and other cancers that didn’t originate in the blood system, can also be treated with stem cells.”
Medical director of Netcells Cryogenics, Dr Yvonne Holt explains that the bone marrow or the peripheral blood of an adult are two other sources of stem cells that can be used to treat the above mentioned diseases.
What is stem cell banking?
Stem cell banking is a private banking facility for parents who want to store their baby’s stem cells in the event that their child becomes ill with a condition treatable with cord blood stem cells. “There are public and private stem cell banks worldwide. Many countries give parents the option to donate their baby’s stem cells, which is then stored at a public stem cell bank and can be accessed by anyone who may need them,” explains Rehrl. This option doesn’t yet exist in South Africa, and gaining access to a stem cell match from public banks is not guaranteed and extremely is expensive.
The benefits of stem cell banking
- Private stem cell banking is solely for your own use
- You don’t have to go through the process of finding a suitable donor.
- Your baby’s stem cells will provide a good match for siblings (one in four), parents (one in eight) and grandparents (one in 32). The chances of finding a match through a public bank for a bone marrow transplant, for example, are reportedly one in 100 000.
- There’s a possibility that your child may reject a donor’s stem cells, whereas the risk of her rejecting her own stem cells is significantly reduced.
- The stem cells are readily available should you need them, and there are no waiting lists.
Cord tissue storage
You can also store your baby’s umbilical cord tissue (Mesenchymal stem cells or MSC) along with the umbilical cord blood. Dr Holt explains that MSC are different to haematopoetic stem cells (blood-forming stem cells). These cells are found in the cord blood, but tests have proven that MSCs can be found in more considerable numbers in Wharton’s jelly, the substance found in the umbilical cord, and in the placental tissues. “Research in regenerative medicine is turning to these cells and developing treatment strategies to repair muscle and skin after injury, or to reconstruct bone, cartilage, tendons and blood vessels.”
Will I ever use the stored stem cells?
The chances that you’ll need your baby’s stored stem cells are hopefully low for critical illnesses, however as technology advances, and the uses and applications of stem cells increase, treatments will become common.
Blood disorders such as Thalassaemia (an inherited form of anaemia), Fanconi’s anaemia, sickle cell anaemia, aplastic anaemia; cancers such as leukaemia, lymphoma and solid tumours in childhood; and metabolic and immune disorders are successfully being treated with umbilical cord stem cells in South Africa.
Where to store stem cells
Will my medical aid cover this procedure?
Generally medical schemes don’t cover stem cell banking, but there are some that cover a portion of the cost if members fit the required criteria (If, for example a family member has an illness that can be treated with stem cells). It will be best to check with your medical aid whether or not they offer coverage for stem cell banking.
Consider the following when deciding whether or not you should store your baby’s stem cells:
- If there’s a family history of certain illnesses such as blood cancers, inherited blood disorders and inherited immune deficiencies.
- Does one of your children have a disease that’s treatable through a stem cell transplant.
- Families of African origin and mixed-race marriages need to consider this option as it’s extremely difficult to find suitable donors in such cases.
Read more about stem cell storage here.
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