The storage of stem cells as a 'biological insurance' for the future is once again hitting the headlines of the popular press. This week, American based company, Cryo-Cell, announced the launch of their new stem cell storage initiative - the opportunity for women to bank their menstrual blood. The company, who already store cord blood stem cells on behalf of the paying customer, claim that menstrual fluid contains valuable stem cells, which have the potential to be manipulated under laboratory conditions into other cell types such as heart, cartilage, nerve, bone and fat.
Dr Xiaolong Meng of the Biocommunications Research Institute, Wichita, Kansas, who led the team involved in the research, refers to these cells as Endometrial Regenerative Cells (ERCs), or menstrual cells. It is believed that ERCs have similar qualities to that of bone marrow stem cells, but possess a much greater proliferative capacity. It is claimed that after two weeks of culture, cells taken from a 5ml sample of menstrual blood had culminated into heart cells, raising hopes for their potential future therapeutic use. A spokesman for Cryo-Cell said 'current research is very preliminary, but given their properties, we believe these menstrual stem cells demonstrate compelling promise to transform regenerative medicine in the coming years'.
Women who take up the chance to bank their menstrual blood are sent a 'discreet' collection kit. Once the blood is collected, it is shipped back to the company by Fed-Ex and preserved for future use - all for a fee of £238 for processing and a year's storage. The use of ERCs, say its advocates, overcomes the ethical problems associated with the use of embryonic stem cells (ES cells), and as menstrual blood can be collected painlessly, it has the advantage over the procurement of bone marrow cells, which is an extremely invasive procedure.
But not everyone has been overjoyed by the availability of this new storage option. Professor Peter Braude of London's King's College and Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital has expressed concern that such a venture is simply preying on people's insecurities. With regard to the viability of ERCs, he proclaimed 'this is all hypothesis and hype. This is such a long way off. I can see no reason why you would need to collect your own menstrual blood'.
Likewise, UK cord blood stem cell storage company, Cells4Life, have questioned the practicalities of the service. Operations manager, Rebecca Rutter, pointed out that 'there is the question of how you collect a sterile sample'. Indeed, under UK Regulations, the removal and storage of human tissue must be carried in accordance with the Human Tissue Act (2004) and under licence from the Human Tissue Authority (HTA). However, BBC News reports that to date, no UK storage company has approached the HTA with a similar request.