In 2006, American-based BioEden Inc. offered parents the chance to preserve cells from the pulp of their baby's milk teeth, which they claimed contained a source of adult stem cells. Earlier this year saw the launch of a service to store embryonic stem cells (ES cells) from excess IVF embryos by Californian storage facility, StemLifeLine. All three enterprises, however, met with strong criticism from medical experts, academics and the popular press alike, claiming that the persuasive advertising is exploitative and such ventures simply prey on the vulnerable. But such critics could not stem the flow of stem cell storage 'supply and demand'.
This week, another US firm jumped on the bandwagon. Cryo-cell International Inc. launched its proprietary cryopreservation service, C'elle, which offers women the unique opportunity to bank stem cells from their menstrual blood. Researchers have discovered that menstrual blood contains markers similar to those found in bone marrow and peripheral blood, but have the advantage of being able to differentiate more quickly and into a greater variety of cells. Preliminary research findings were presented at the annual Transcatheter Cardiovascular Therapeutics symposia on 21 October 2007 and proclaimed that menstrual stem cells have the potential to become neural, cardiac, bone, cartilage and fat cells. Moreover, it is claimed by C'elle that these cells may be used for possible future medical regenerative and rejuvenation procedures.
The C'elle website is particularly impressive. It shares remarkable similarities to the advertising techniques deployed by the cosmetic industry, particularly those of leading brands such as L'Oreal. In the same way that beauty clinics offer customised beauty routines using a range of products, C'elle speaks of the storage of cells for 'customised therapies in the future'. With accompanying video footage, music and models, women are urged to bank now 'as these precious resources from menstrual fluid will certainly not last forever'. Nor apparently will their looks. In spite of the fact that menstrual cells have yet to be used outside of pre-clinical trials, and have been criticised by Peter Braude, Professor of London's King's College and Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital as being all 'hypothesis and hype', C'elle claims that stored cells may one day be used in cosmeceutical applications, such as anti-aging therapies. In the age of an image conscious society, it is little wonder that the use of such language has been declared as nothing short of preying on people's insecurities. Indeed, not only is their collection kit described as 'discreet' but also it's 'attractive'. Time is of the essence and these cells, say C'elle, should be saved before its too late - after all, 'it is indisputable that with each day your body ages and you will inevitably be older next month than you are today'.
On reflection, if someone has the spare cash to spend on the storage of body tissue 'just in case' it is needed in the future, is that really any different from other kinds of optional insurance policies? Of course, a conventional form of insurance has a monetary return, whereas the payout in the case of biological cryopreservation is a vial full of stem cells that may or may not be of any use to the recipient, particularly as at present, there is no evidence that menstrual stem cells will be viable in a clinical setting. Hardly a good return on your investment. But if you are affluent enough to take that risk, then there is every reason to be offered the choice, even though it is admitted that 'realistically, it may take several years for these menstrual stem cells to be developed into potential widely-available commercial therapies'. That said, then why, realistically, should women bother? The problem is that such a commercially driven service is founded upon too many vagaries and speculation to constitute a real choice - and to be economical with the truth is to offer no choice at all.
But with the media hysteria that has surrounded menstrual blood banking this week, it must be remembered that such a service option has yet to reach the UK. It may, however, be prudent to note that whilst the Human Tissue Authority has yet to be approached by a UK firm regarding a similar proposal, it was in the US that cord blood banking first emerged - a concept that took just over five years to be offered here. One can only wonder how long it will be before the flow of what C'elle terms 'the monthly miracle' reaches our shores.