05 February 2007
ByAppeared in BioNews 394
Sir Richard Branson has launched a new company under his Virgin brand which will offer umbilical cord blood banking facilities to parents of newborn babies. Cord blood transfusions are already used for the treatment of blood related disorders but some believe that umbilical cord blood, which is rich in stem cells, may have some future potential to treat diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes. The expectation behind private cord blood banking is that the individuals whose blood is stored might benefit in the future should stem cell treatments became available to treat such conditions.
Private companies offering umbilical cord blood banking facilities to parents already exist in the UK, but Virgin's Health bank will develop a novel approach by splitting each collection and donating part of it for the treatment of others. Sir Richard said, 'we will take an individual's cord blood and we will divide it into two. Part of it will go into a national blood centre that anyone can get access to and the other half will be put aside for the child'.
As this new venture was announced many welcomed the contribution to public health that the new bank will make. However, a cautious approach to the storage of umbilical cord blood for the treatment of non blood-related disorders was also urged. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) published a report last year saying there was little evidence to recommend private cord blood banking for such a purpose. However, despite these recommendations, the RCOG also said that the intention to develop a substantial bank which will be made available internationally to cord blood registers was 'to be applauded'. This would increase the number of samples already available publicly and increase the chances of patients being matched with potential donors.
Although the NHS currently collects and stores up to 2,000 cord blood samples through the National Blood Service, critics of private cord blood banks were also concerned that the process of collection could interfere with the health and safety of mother and baby. The RCOG report published last year advised doctors and midwives not to take part in this procedure and a spokesperson for the Royal College of Midwives said that most maternity units did not have a clear policy for dealing with the collection of cord blood, which put midwives in a difficult position.