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Umbilical cord blood banking not worth the cash, study shows

28 September 2009
Appeared in BioNews 527

Banking a newborn's umbilical cord blood through a private company so that stem cells may be derived and stored for that child's or sibling's future medical uses is not financially worthwhile, according to a study performed at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF). It found that the chances of privately stored umbilical cord blood being therapeutic in the next twenty years are so remote that it does not justify the expense. The researchers calculated that it costs approximately an additional £869,320.69 ($1.3 million USD) for each life-year gained. An earlier survey of private cord blood banks by the American Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation supports the study, revealing that only 99 cord blood units of approximately 460,000 banked have ever been shipped for treatment.

The study, to be published in the October edition of the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, concluded that only when storage costs are less than £165.45 or when the likelihood of a child needing a stem cell transplant is greater than one in 110 would private umbilical cord blood banking become cost-effective.

Private cord blood banking companies have proliferated and advertise online directly to consumers touting their services will function as 'biological insurance' against life-threatening diseases once future stem cell therapies are developed. The Los Angeles Times newspaper reported in March 2009 that approximately five per cent of parents bank their newborn's cord blood - 80 per cent of this is banked privately for the child's own potential use and about 20 per cent is donated to public banks. 'Expectant parents need to understand the true likelihood of their family benefiting from private cord blood banking in order to make an informed decision about this expensive process,' advised Dr Aaron Caughey, co-author and an UCSF associate professor and director of the UCSF Center for Clinical and Policy Perinatal Research.

The lowest price offered online by major blood banking companies is £2,288.00 which was used as the basis for this study. In contrast, public cord blood banking is free and 'desperately needed', says Dr Karen Ballen, an oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, adding: 'If we bank cord blood privately we are taking the opportunity away from someone who might really need it.'

Umbilical cord blood is a source of unique stem cells collected within ten minutes of birth that demonstrate embryonic-like capability to develop into the major different cell types in the body without the ethical and scarcity issues of embryonic stem cells. Umbilical cord stem cells have been used to treat nearly 80 diseases. However, Caughey cautions that most of their medical benefits remain 'primarily theoretical'.

The 'discrepancy' between the perceived benefits by families and actual lack of benefit indentified by analysis and professional opinion indicates that improved patient counselling is required, discussed Dr Anjali Kaimal, lead author of the study. Cord Blood Registry, the world's largest umbilical cord blood stem cell bank, recently devised an online education system that has been recommended as an effective educational tool that could help close this information gap, according to user-surveys and evaluation by 7,000 healthcare providers.

US polling data reveals that three out of every four pregnant women still consider themselves only 'minimally informed' about umbilical cord blood stem cells. The US Institute of Medicine (IOM), in 2005, recommended that pregnant women should be better educated and 17 US states have passed laws implementing the guidance.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Banking umbilical cord blood costs more than $1.3 million per added year of life
LA Times |  22 September 2009
Data Released at an International Stem Cell Meeting Highlights Effectiveness of New Patient Education System Developed to Support Federal and State Guidelines on Cord Blood Education
PR Newswire (press release) |  23 September 2009
Private Umbilical Cord Banking Not Cost-effective, Analysis Finds
Science Daily |  23 September 2009
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