I remember when the idea of having your body frozen and preserved after death, a procedure called “cryonics,” was trending. Now, there is a new low-temperature preservation technique that gambles on future science to prove itself useful: cord blood banking by private companies.
If you are a soon-to-be parent, you may have seen the ads. The idea is that the blood inside the umbilical cord holds a special potential for your newborn. By paying a company an initial fee of roughly CAD 1,000 and a yearly sum, this blood can be preserved for you at ultra-low temperature and might one day cure your child of some dreadful disease.
Is cord blood banking with a private company a scientifically valid form of insuring your child against disease, as it is often described, and are there alternatives?
Stem cells are undecided babies
Right after a baby is born, there is blood that remains in the placenta and its attached umbilical cord, and this cord blood is valuable because it contains stem cells. Our bodies are made up of cells that have specific functions to play: our neurons conduct electrical signals, our muscle cells contract, our red blood cells carry oxygen around. These specialized cells are all derived from stem cells. If our specialized cells are like adults who have chosen a career, stem cells are babies who have yet to decide if they want to be firefighters or astronauts.
Stem cells have a lot of potential, in more ways than one. They can differentiate themselves into cells our eyes, lungs, and heart can use, and because of that, they have the potential to be used as medical treatments. Researchers have been hard at work for decades trying to figure out if stem cells can treat every disease and condition under the sun, from diabetes to cancer, from spinal cord injuries resulting in paralysis to even baldness. The reality, though, is that focusing this incredible power into a specific intervention that is both safe and effective has proven to be challenging. As of now, pretty much the only legitimate use of stem cell therapies outside of experimental trials is to replace the bone marrow, the spongy tissue in the bone that produces blood cells. This hasn’t stopped private clinics from popping up all over the world and offering to inject stem cells, often drawn from a customer’s fat, for uses that have never been shown to work and that might prove dangerous.
Those stem cells contained in the umbilical cord can, however, be put to good use. In Canada, the Canadian Blood Services have been running a public cord blood bank since 2013 in partnership with four hospitals. A woman who wants to participate will fill out a consent form during her pregnancy. Once both the baby and the placenta have been delivered, an employee of the blood bank will draw the blood out from the umbilical cord attached to the placenta. If enough stem cells are contained in the sample, it will be frozen at ultra-low temperatures and can potentially be used by the bank to help treat a patient in need. That’s the public option in Canada. But there is a private option, in which a company freezes your cord blood for it to be used only by your child. This option relies on a lot of promises and sales talk to make it appealing.
Will your child get hit by lightning?
There is “substantial hype” on the websites of private cord blood banking companies in Canada according to a new study that was funded by the Canadian Blood Services. These companies often make it sound like the promises of stem cell research are on the cusp of being realized. They argue that any responsible parent would choose to bank their child’s cord blood, in much the same way that responsible homeowners purchase home insurance. And they often highlight the urgency of the situation. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, they write. Once that umbilical cord is thrown out, its potent stem cells can never be recovered. “Act now,” as the old infomercials used to say.
What these websites don’t reveal on their homepages is the likelihood that your specimen will be used by your child. This is, in all honesty, a difficult number to estimate. The authors of the study cite a few educated guesses by scientists, from 1 in 400 to 1 in 10,000, the latter not being far off from your odds of being struck by lightning in your lifetime. The Canadian Blood Services quote even slimmer odds: a range from a 1 in 20,000 chance to a 1 in 250,000 chance. Of course, these odds would improve as more and more treatments involving stem cells show efficacy and get approved. And that’s the problem. We don’t know to what extent stem cell research will pay off, and when, and for what conditions specifically. Meanwhile, private cord blood banking over the average Canadian life expectancy of 82 years would currently cost about CAD 11,250. It’s not an absurd sum of money, nor is it loose change, and one hopes these private companies will still be around a few decades down the road, unlike the early cryonics companies that pretty much all went belly up.
It turns out that cord blood banked by public institutions are 30 times more likely to be used than those banked by private companies. The reason is simple. Public banks try to match their samples to a broad number of patients, whereas a privately banked sample can only potentially help one person. Another interesting statistic: one in four patients in need of a stem cell transplant will find a match within their own family.
This latest study on cord blood bank websites is one more indication that scienceploitation is real. Hype is about intensive publicity; scienceploitation goes beyond hype in creating misunderstandings about promising scientific research. These private companies know the pressure future parents are under to do what’s best for their child and prey on those insecurities. It’s not that private cord blood banking is necessarily bad. It’s that speculative uses are amplified and the worth of this “bioinsurance” is greatly distorted. There is also an attempt at normalizing the process that screams “keeping up with the Joneses.” Some companies offer a free infant seat or a bottle sterilizer when you enrol, or the option to get your friends and relatives to pay for this procedure via a cord blood gift registry. If your pregnant friend invites you to donate to her cord blood gift registry, you might wonder if you too should have one of those when the time comes. After all, it is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Choosing to get frozen after death implies the hope that future scientists can master the process of resurrection. It’s one heck of a gamble. Along those lines, paying a yearly storage fee to a for-profit cord blood banking corporation is a bet on stem cell research paying off big time. Prospective customers need a clear head to make this decision. The brazen hype on company websites doesn’t help.
-Cord blood banking refers to the freezing of blood drawn from the umbilical cord immediately after birth to preserve stem cells that could potentially be used to treat certain medical conditions.
-Public banks will match donations to a patient in need, whereas private banks charge you fees for storing your own cord blood so that your child can some day make use of it.
-Private cord blood bank websites in Canada use a lot of hype to attract customers, whereas the chances of this cord blood ever being used by a customer’s child are very, very low (although new developments in stem cell research could improve those odds).