In recent years, the preservation of umbilical cord blood and stem cells has emerged as a significant breakthrough in medical science. According to experts, this unique procedure allows for safeguarding a “valuable biological resource” that could potentially be used to treat a range of diseases and conditions, if and when they develop in a child, in the future.
But what are these?
The umbilical cord is a vital connection between the mother and the developing foetus during pregnancy, which helps provide essential nutrients and oxygen. “It is a rich source of stem cells, which have the unique ability to differentiate into various types of cells in the body. These stem cells can be harvested from the cord blood and stored for future medical use,” said Dr Pradeep Mahajan, regenerative medicine researcher and founder, StemRx BioScience Solutions – India.
In the early 1970s–80s, it was reported that both the umbilical cord blood and tissue are a rich source of hematopoietic/mesenchymal stem cells, said Dr Q Hasan, HOD, Department of Genetics and Molecular Medicine, Kamineni Hospitals, Hyderabad, adding that the first stem cell bank was established in New York in 1991, and ever since has gained popularity leading to the mushrooming of stem cell banks all over the world, including India.
The process of preserving umbilical cord blood and stem cells involves collecting the blood immediately after childbirth. “This collection is non-invasive, painless, and does not pose any risk to the mother or the baby. The collected blood is then sent to specialised laboratories where it undergoes a series of tests and is processed for long-term storage. These stem cells can be preserved for many years, maintaining their viability for potential therapeutic applications,” noted Dr Mahajan.
Rahul Janya***, who opted to bank both his children’s stem cells — seven and three years ago respectively — shared that though it might seem to be a “waste of money” initially, it may come of use in the future if “God forbid, the kids are diagnosed with any diseases”, the 35-year-old said. In fact, she shared that even his brother opted for stem cell banking for his child at the cost of about Rs 58,000, in 2022.
How does it help?
According to Dr Mahajan, umbilical cord blood and stem cells have shown great promise in treating a wide range of diseases, including certain blood disorders, immune system deficiencies, and genetic disorders. “They can be used in transplantation procedures to replace damaged or diseased cells, stimulating the body’s natural healing processes. Moreover, ongoing research is exploring their potential in regenerative medicine, which aims to restore damaged tissues and organs. Additionally, it ensures a personalised and readily available stem cell source for the donor and their family, minimising the risk of rejection during transplantation,” said Dr Mahajan.
He further said that the ability to regenerate and repair damaged tissues could pave the way for personalised therapies. “Their versatility and regenerative properties hold promise for revolutionising healthcare and improving patients’ lives,” said Dr Mahajan.
Umbilical cord stem cells do not require perfect cell matching, and may be used as an allogenic (obtained from different individuals) for regenerative medicine, said Dr Hasan, who has carried out research on stem cells and feels that “such cells may be especially relevant for treating diabetes and its complications”. “At Kamineni, we have successfully differentiated umbilical cord stem cells into insulin-producing beta cells which can replace the non-functional cells in the pancreas, thereby treating diabetes,” he shared.
Moreover, Dr P Shridhar, HOD, department of general surgery from Kamineni Hospitals believes that the main advantage of using umbilical cord stem cells in diabetic ulcer therapy is “the quick regulation of tissue regeneration and overall improvement of wound healing”. In his experience, “the time to recovery of chronic wounds, burn tissue, or non-healing diabetic ulcers is significantly reduced”.
However, despite its tremendous potential, Dr G. Satyanarayana, a senior surgeon from Kamineni Hospitals, Hyderabad cautioned that we are “yet to establish its safe clinical use”.
Experts suggest that the number of cells obtained and stored from the umbilical cord “may be insufficient, or there is no evidence of their effectiveness”. “Some other drawbacks of the umbilical cord and stem cell preservation in India include high cost, lack of awareness and accessibility, and limited usage due to small sample size,” said Dr Mahajan.
Dr Mahajan elucidated that the initial collection and processing fees, as well as annual storage charges, can vary among different service providers. “Families considering this option must evaluate the long-term benefits and make an informed decision based on their financial capabilities,” said Dr Mahajan.
At present, stem cell therapies are being investigated for safe possible clinical applications to treat several curable diseases. “Globally, more than 50,000 stem cell transplants are being performed for several genetic and non-genetic diseases, while in India, the average number of transplants is very low because of its high costs and availability,” said Dr Hasan.
Apart from private banks, India has also seen the emergence of public cord blood banking initiatives. This avenue allows families who cannot afford private preservation to contribute to the public healthcare system and “potentially save lives”.
Calling regenerative medicine a wonderful emerging branch of science, especially using umbilical cord stem cells, Dr Hasan highlighted that in a country like India with a high birth rate, where “cord tissues are discarded instead of obtaining stem cells and banking them, public stem cell banking can bring out immense possibilities towards therapeutic treatment and management.”
📣 For more lifestyle news, follow us on Instagram | Twitter | Facebook and don’t miss out on the latest updates!