The advance of medicine in the area of diseases considered lethal or incurable is encouraging, especially after the discovery of stem cells. Able to transform into any of the 216 tissues that make up the human body, the use of embryonic stem cells in research for cures in the most diverse areas has been obtaining significant results. With the success, several companies have emerged specialized in freezing the baby’s cord blood, rich in cells of the type: the argument is that if the baby develops some serious disease, the frozen stem cells can mean a cure. But is that really the case? What does it cost to keep this material in a cell bank? Is it worth it?
Why are umbilical cord stem cells special?
Stem cells contained in the umbilical cord have the same therapeutic potential as bone marrow, i.e., they treat diseases related to blood cancers (onco-hematological). It is rich in adult stem cells and has a number of advantages in use – including an estimated one-third of bone marrow transplants have been replaced. The process to remove the blood from the cord is painless and presents no risk to the mother or baby. As they are new cells, they have not been exposed to external agents such as radiation, pollution, infections, etc. In the case of a transplant, the chances of rejection are lower. It is also easier to find a compatible donor. One compatible bone marrow is found every 20,000 samples. In the case of cord blood, that number drops to one every 4,000.
How much does it cost to freeze umbilical cord blood?
In private banks, the baby’s cord blood is available only to him and his family. The cost of collection is, on average, R$4 thousand. After the collection, the bank pays an annual fee to preserve the frozen stem cells, which is around R$800.00. There are public cord blood freezing banks, but few hospitals offer this resource, and even so, the material is available to everyone who needs this type of treatment, not just the donor. The National Cancer Institute (Inca) has 6,000 frozen blood samples and meets 50% of the demand. The good news is that 15,000 new donors are registered with the institution every month, which reduces the risk of death by incompatibility.
Is it worth freezing the stem cells from my son’s umbilical cord?
There is disagreement among experts. One of the main points is that, in the case of congenital diseases, whose tendency is in the patient’s DNA, such as leukemia, the treatment with the patient’s own stem cells would not have a curative character, since they also carry this characteristic. In this case, it would be even better to opt for a medulla transplant from a compatible donor.
In fact, 90% of people with diseases treatable with cord blood could not use their own in treatment. What happens is the related use, that is, between siblings. Still, the chances of compatibility are 25%. The probability of your child needing this benefit by the age of 20 is one to 20,000. This material could be useful in very exceptional cases, where there is a high risk of genetic diseases for hereditary anemia, such as thalassemia and sickle cell anemia: it is very rare.
Another theory is that, through the use of embryonic stem cells, it would be possible to create tissue parts and even entire organs for transplantation in the laboratory, but in reality, this is still far from happening.
How many units of cord blood have been used in Brazil to treat diseases?
According to data published by Veja magazine, 135 of the 12 000 stored units were donated for bone marrow transplantation in public banks. In the private ones, only eight out of more than 45 600 units were useful: five of them for use in relatives, and only three for use by the child itself. In one of these cases, the patient presented leukemia and did not resist the treatment. In the other two, of cerebral palsy, the results were not disclosed.
What stage is the cord blood stem cell research at?
The effectiveness of the patient’s own umbilical cord cells has been tested for diseases such as cerebral palsy, type I diabetes and autism. The research, however, has not yet left the experimental field. Stem cell therapy originating from various tissues, not only the cord, has been studied for almost fifteen years. But, in this period, there has not been any great advance. It is recommended in some situations, such as tissue regeneration, but from cells collected from the adult patient’s marrow and not from cord blood.
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