B.C. Industry News

B.C. Women’s Hospital’s umbilical cord blood bank offers gift of life

January 9, 2014

Umbilical cord blood is more versatile, easier to match

By Pamela Fayerman, Vancouver Sun

North Vancouver resident Hector Walker owes his life to stem cells derived from the umbilical cord blood of a pair of wee strangers.

Walker, who is 62 and had leukemia, had no clue where his doctors at Vancouver General Hospital found the donor stem cells for his 2010 transplant. But he’s grateful they did — and thrilled that finding a match may become less cumbersome now that B.C. Women’s Hospital will soon start asking expectant mothers to donate their newborn babies’ cord blood, a rich and versatile source of potentially healing stem cells.

At a news conference today, the biggest maternity hospital in the province will be named as a collection site for the new National Public Cord Blood Bank. It is the second hospital in the country to get that distinction (after Ottawa) and will serve as one of only four collection sites across the country.

“Finding a bone marrow match was more of a problem for me because I’m black. Even my brother wasn’t a match,” said Walker. “Life is so unpredictable. People should understand they can save someone’s life by doing this.”

The hospital was designated a collection site because so many babies are delivered there (7,000 annually) and the patient population is ethnically diverse.

Once a pilot phase of up to half a year is over, healthy, pregnant women giving birth at B.C. Women’s will be able to donate the blood from the umbilical cords of their babies. Until now, most umbilical cords have been discarded, which is why Dr. Tanya Petraszko, a Canadian Blood Services (CBS) official, says: “Our competition is the garbage can.”

Canada has access to international sources but a public bank here should mean that Canadian doctors won’t as often have to search the world for life-saving stem cells, especially for difficult-to-match, ethnically diverse patients like Walker (originally from Jamaica).

Because most registered blood and bone marrow donors are Caucasian, finding matches for minority groups is most challenging. In recent years, CBS has been trying to reach out to First Nations, Asian and other ethnic communities in a bid to boost that supply.

Only half of patients who need an unrelated stem cell transplant are able to find one and there are about 1,000 patients across Canada waiting for stem cell transplants. A stem cell transplant requires a DNA match between the donor and recipient, but cord blood cells are more adaptable so there’s less chance of a rejection.

Canada is the last G8 country to establish a national bank. It was announced by federal and provincial governments nearly three years ago, after years of deliberations. Nearly $50 million was earmarked in start-up funds but CBS committed to forming a development group to raise another $12.5 million from philanthropic Canadians. (There is still $4 million left to raise).

In a presentation to The Vancouver Sun editorial board Wednesday, CBS officials said when matches can’t be found within Canada, doctors search globally. There are about 48 cord banks in 32 countries.

Petraszko said the going rate for stem cell units purchased from banks around the world is about $42,000 per unit. Two units (each cord supply equals one unit) are required for adult patients and one is sufficient for pediatric patients.

Although stem cells can also be derived from bone marrow or from veins, there are advantages to cord blood — it can be collected in advance, frozen, stored indefinitely and is far less likely to cause rejection.

The goal is to create a stem cell bank that reflects Canadian demographics while reducing reliance on international sources. The Canadian bank is expected to eventually become an exporter of stem cell units itself which would mean it could become financially self-sustaining.

All cord blood collected in Vancouver will be sent to a processing site in Edmonton where it will be typed, screened and frozen at minus 196 degrees Celsius.

While stem cells are typically used for more than 50 illnesses including leukemia, lymphoma, and blood, bone, metabolic and immune disorders, emerging research has suggested that a host of other diseases may be treated or even cured with stem cells, including diabetes, cerebral palsy and brain injuries, to name a few.

It’s unclear what effect the new national public bank will have on private facilities across Canada, where tens of thousands of parents have stored their newborns’ cord blood on the off chance that the child — or a matching family member — might one day need it. Burnaby’s Lifebank, which has been in business for nearly 20 years, is one such private facility.

For more information, go to www.onematch.ca or to www.blood.ca.

Sun Health Issues Reporter


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