Is preserving cord blood and tissue really worth that money?

Lack of proper information has led lakhs of parents to believe that the cord is the Holy Grail which will help protect their child from diseases. While many pay through their noses, Shillpi A Singh questions the adequacy of the practice

The cord blood and tissue, which was once discarded as waste at the time of delivery, is a repository of stem cells that are the building blocks of regenerative medicine or so is a common belief. It has led almost every other parent-to-be to go for storing their child’s umbilical cord blood in private banks for years by paying a huge amount of money, but without realising that in 95% cases, they’re are useless.

Value for money 

The first thing that the Delhi-based couple Mou and Sarbajit Dutta did after discovering that they were expecting their first child was to get their unborn child’s cord blood, and tissue banked. The action was prompted by the hype surrounding the concept of preserving the umbilical cord blood and tissue for its use later if need be. “We didn’t want to miss the opportunity and relatively secure our child’s future to some extent, at least,” says Dutta, who paid an upfront cost of Rs65,000 to get it stored for 21 years with a private cord blood bank.

What works in favour of cord blood banking is the fear factor. To-be parents are vulnerable and most likely to fall prey to such claims that promise the use of stem cells as a quick-fix for everything from dermatological anti-ageing treatments to curing degenerative diseases such as osteoarthritis and cerebral palsy. Clearing the air surrounding the hype, Dr Rahul Bhargava, Director, Bone Marrow Transplant, at Fortis Memorial Research Institute, says, “The truth is that at present, stem cells from the umbilical cord blood can cure only blood-related diseases. Sure, there is a great deal of research taking place around the world on all kinds of cures, but we will need to see these developments as a future hope, not a sure-shot cure at the moment.”

Dr Rahul Bhargava
Dr Rahul Bhargava

Costly promise 

The bleak promise of a sure-shot cure and tissue banking turn out to be a very cost-effective investment for new parent. “It is like buying an insurance policy. You pay the premium all throughout, hoping that you might never have to use it. Your child will most probably not need it, but in case she does, it’s great to have that option. It holds a lot of possibilities for my child’s health in case of a medical problem in the future,” quips Tanushree Roy Chowdhury, a PR professional based in Gurgaon, who paid Rs1 lakh, in small EMIs over a period of four years to avail this option.

According to the American Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation, the promise of using as a biological insurance is unrealistic as the chance of a baby later benefiting from his or her own banked cord blood is currently less than 0.04 percent. “Even though the transplant done through them has better results, the flip side is that it will be useful for treatment only when your child is young. A person over 50 kg will need two cord blood units, making it necessary to tap into the pool,” adds Dr Bhargava.

Types of banking

There are two types of cord blood banking companies – one that bank a baby’s blood for their use, and others that put blood into a pool, which makes your own baby’s blood available to other people and vice versa. The most prevalent practice in India is private cord banking as people feel their baby’s UCB is their property which makes it unavailable to anyone else who might need it. But in most blood-related disorders, transplant specialists recommend Umbilical Cord Blood Transplant (UCBT) to be of another person (allogenic) and not their own (autologous). “It defeats the purpose in the case of a genetic disorder as a baby’s own cord blood might not be useful, but someone’ else UCB can be used to save that baby’s life,” says paediatrician Dr Tina Goel.

Dr Tina Goel
Dr Tina Goel

Act smart

So the most advisable action for parents is to ideally put their baby’s umbilical cord blood into a common pool where it could be used to save someone’s life. Similarly, another baby’s UCB could protect your child just like it happens in the case of a regular blood bank, where you donate to save a life. “Private storage of the cord blood stem cells is advisable when there is an elder child or a family member with a condition treatable with these cells, and the mother is expecting the next baby. So the cost cannot be justified as there’s little chance of a child ever being able to use his/her cord blood. Until the time public cord blood banks are established, this procedure will only have an emotional rationale rather than a scientific one,” Dr Goel adds.

The need of the hour is to rework the way umbilical cord blood is stored and shared. If done, it will present new paradigms of treatment by filling the gap between what’s available and what’s usable.

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The checklist

A parent must ask these questions while opting for a cord blood bank:

How will the UCB be harvested?

What amount will be taken?

How will it be stored?

For how long will it be stored?

How will UCB be frozen and thawed?

What happens if the bank shuts down – does it have a provision to transfer the stored UCB to another bank?

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