Thursday, November 16, 2006

Banking on Indian Umbilical Cords

An Indian blood bank plans to take advantage of the country's booming birth rate by opening a repository for blood taken from umbilical cords.
But critics worry that without proper oversight, the massive bank could put a price tag on umbilical cords, putting the country's millions of impoverished women and children at risk of exploitation.
Cord blood is used in the treatment of many ailments, especially blood diseases like leukemia, thalassemia and sickle cell anemia.
With 43 million births a year, India is poised to be the largest supplier of umbilical cord blood in the world.
LifeCell, based here, hopes to open a cord-blood bank in December. The bank would serve anyone in the world with access to FedEx.
Most experts agree that public cord-blood banking is a good idea. Stem cells from both cord blood and bone marrow treat many blood diseases, but cord blood is easier to obtain. Cord blood is also less likely to be rejected than bone marrow, which requires an exact match, usually from a family member. Similar to a blood bank, a cord-blood bank relies on donations to cover a broad range of immune types. The more donors, the more likely patients in need will find a match.
But in India, where female infanticide and body-organ sales are not uncommon, watchdog groups worry that a massive cord-blood bank like LifeCell's could create a dangerous demand for umbilical cords.
"The notion of worldwide registries that can supply transplant tissue to each other has obvious attractions," said Satyajit Rath, a medical activist at the National Institute of Immunology in New Delhi. "The cord-farm notion, on the other hand, is very troubling. Given the reality of poverty, it is not impossible to imagine a situation where people would have (or even abort) babies simply in order to sell umbilical cord blood."
In December, LifeCell will begin collecting thousands of umbilical cord-blood samples, and will charge a fee for withdrawal. The fee hasn't been disclosed. The service will categorize the available stem cells into a searchable database. Doctors who find matches for their patients can order an overnight shipment.
"We will be able to sell to anyone in the world," said Prasad Mangipudi, vice president of LifeCell.
The United States has seven public cord banks that charge up to $18,000 per unit -- a fee that is often paid by insurers. But in India, this is the kind of profitability that raises eyebrows. [...snip] Read the Rest at Wired News

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