The potentially life-saving properties of cord blood stem cells, taken from the umbilical cords of newborn babies, has been highlighted by a UK politician this week. Conservative MP David Burrowes presented a 10-minute rule bill to Parliament on 8 January 2008, which requires doctors to inform patients of the ability to collect their stem cells for private use or for donation to a public pool. The bill's aim is to encourage parents and the wider public to be more informed about the value and benefits of umbilical cord blood (UCB).
Stem cells from UCB have been used for transplantation purposes since the first successful transplant in 1988 on Matthew Farrow, a five- year-old boy affected by Fanconi's Anaemia. Since then, UCB has been used to treat disorders such as thalassaemia, immunodeficiency, inherited metabolic diseases, aplastic anaemia and acute leukaemia. However, in spite of its success within a clinical setting, UCB is routinely thrown away by hospitals as biological waste. This has prompted Mr Burrowes to bring to the attention of Parliament the unnecessary disposal of this potentially powerful resource.
The routine disposal of the cells is particularly poignant given the plight of many families who are unable to find a suitable bone marrow match and may benefit from UCB. This was one of the reasons that underpinned the MP's decision to champion the cause, in particular that of Becki Josiah, a mother from Walthamstow, East London, whose daughter died in April 2006 when the search for a suitable bone marrow donor failed. Ms Josiah explained that the search for a matching donor was made even more problematic due to the fact that her daughter was of mixed race background.
Although a 10-minute rule bill itself is prohibited from becoming law due to its 'stand-alone' status, it is hoped that it will spark further debate into the need for a greater infrastructure and funding of UCB stem cells. Indeed, Colin McGuckin, professor of regenerative medicine at Newcastle University said: 'Cord blood has already cured around 10,000 people, but despite this much of the UK stem cell funding goes towards other types of stem cells'. Furthermore, there are currently only two active public banking facilities in the UK, collecting from a mere six NHS hospitals, thus restricting the total number of available UCB units.
One of the key concerns of UCB collection is the logistical pressure it places on maternity staff who are currently relied upon to facilitate the procurement of the cells. Whilst broadly supportive of the aims of the bill, a spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecology (RCOG) said: 'The RCOG recommends than an appropriately trained and skilled technician is present to collect the cord blood so that the obstetrician and midwife are focused on the care of the mother immediately after the birth'.