Don't bank your baby's stem cells, it's a money-making scam
Do your homework before storing your child's stem cells
Parents will go to almost any lengths to keep their children safe and healthy. But when it comes to spending big bucks to store baby’s stem cells, they should do their homework.
Experts say the procedure – done as “insurance” so the stem cells can be used later if the child ever gets cancer – is largely a “scam” and unlikely to ever be useful.
Thousands of South African parents have paid more than R20,000 each to store their babies’ umbilical cord blood and tissue for stem cells.
But many do not know that, in most cases, blood cancers can’t be treated with a child’s own cord blood as the stem cells inside it may have the same mutation that led to the cancer.Paediatrician Alastair McAlpine said he would never store blood for a child.
“Saving your baby’s cord blood and tissue is an expensive scam, especially in SA.”
A senior oncologist and professor, who declined to be named, said: “I personally think that cord banking is a bit of a scam as the likelihood of a child needing these cells at any time in their lives is extremely remote.
“In addition, the amount of stem cells in such a harvest is inadequate for anyone weighing over 50kg. Also, no one knows what the viability of these cells will be into the distant future.”
Umbilical cord blood from the mother’s placenta is a rich source of stem cells, which can be used instead of bone-marrow transplants to treat leukaemia and other blood cancers, blood disorders and immune deficiencies. But this is largely only true if the blood is donated by another baby.
In Europe, East Asia countries and America, public banks exist in which mothers donate the umbilical cord blood for use by blood cancer patients, if a match is found.But in South Africa, in the absence of a public bank, there are private banks.
What these private banks don’t tell parents in their brochures, reviewed by Times Select, is that the likelihood of ever using one’s own blood is slim.
Also kept from the advertising is that often donations for public banking abroad are not good quality and are rejected.
One scientific study estimates a quarter of all umbilical cord bloods are rejected.A Cryo-Save call centre agent told a Times Select journalist masquerading as a pregnant woman that the blood could be used to treat 80 diseases.
Asked twice if the child’s cord blood could be used to treat the same child’s cancer, the agent said it could. “Yes, yes, this cord blood and tissue is stored specifically for your own little one,” she said.
Michael Pepper, director of the Institute for Cellular and Molecular Medicine and a professor in the Department of Immunology at the University of Pretoria, said stem cells from cord blood could not treat “cancers which arise from a genetic mutation, which includes many of the cancers currently being treated”.
The numbers support this.In South Africa, Cryo Save Laboratories has saved about 8,000 units of cord blood, while another private bank, Netcells, has saved 15,000 units. However only two releases have been made – both for experimental treatment for Cerebral Palsy in at Duke University in the US.
Of the 340,000 units that Cryo-Save has stored globally, only 14 have been released for transplants. Many of these cases were for siblings.
Both Cryo-Save and Netcells confirmed that no transplants using own cord blood have been done in South Africa.
Johannesburg mom-to-be Lauren Mendoza said she had done a lot of research on stem cell banks to help her in deciding if she should sign up for the procedure.
“At the moment it appears this is a money making scam. Even my paediatrician friends in SA haven’t done it for their own kids.”
Cryo-Save’s medical director Robert Crookes admitted that of the 30,000 or so stem cell transplants, most have been done from public banks and are not a child’s own blood.
Despite his agent’s dishonest sales pitch, Crookes told Times Select: “People must be given information and then need to make an informed choice.”