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Acute need for public stem cell bank in South Africa

Posted Jun 10 2009 6:46pm
Some of the country's top scientists are meeting this week to discuss the possibility of starting the country's first multi-million rand public stem cell bank. 

The project is being spear-headed by Dr Michael Pepper, extraordinary professor in the department of immunology at the University of Pretoria and a director of Netcell, one of the country's three private stem cell banks. 

Cervical cord blood contains stem cells used to treat blood-related disorders such as leukaemia and sickle-cell anaemia, as well as some immune and metabolic disorders. If this blood is harvested at birth and stored, it can be used to treat these disorders in later life.

Pepper said there was an acute need for a public stem cell bank. 

"There are a lot of South Africans in need of a bone marrow transplant. There is a difficulty in getting matches from international banks because of the genetic diversity we have here. There is no facility that caters for the majority of the population." 

He said the meeting this week would include all the stakeholders, including the Department of Health. A feasibility study is being carried out and they are looking at various ways of raising funds. 

"To start a bank we would need R10-million and to drive it through to completion in a period of five years will take a total of R50-million." 

The government had other health priorities, so it was unlikely to be able to fully fund it. 

"We have the technology and the skills, the problem is raising the money."

The issue was raised at a recent public debate on stem cell banks in Cape Town at the MTN Sciencentre. 

In South Africa there are three companies, Lazaron, Cryoclinic and Netcells, which offer stem-cell storage and which charge a collection fee of between R9 000 and R15 500 a baby. Some also charge an annual storage fee of R150.

A recent American study predicts that the chance of a person receiving a transplant of their own stem cells by the age of 70 is already one in 200.

UCT scientist in human genetics Jacquie Greenberg said stem cell research was the "hot science of now and the future". 

"It really is exciting times. It is important that the government regulations allow this research here in South Africa and do not close the doors on it for the wrong reasons, such as because people do not understand its potential use and benefit."

She cautioned parents to be well informed before making a decision to save umbilical stems cells at a private cord blood bank. 

"They must realise that it is a personal choice, not a must as some commercial cord blood banks often portray. They need to ask the right questions."

The questions include:

  •  Is the bank accredited?

  •  Is it honest about which diseases can be treated?

  •  What happens if there are not enough cells collected for a transplant - will the bank then offer a refund?

  •  Who owns the cord blood and what rights do you have? 

  •  What will happen if the bank goes out of business and closes down or what if you are unable to pay the annual storage fee?

  •  Does the bank feed any of its profits and/or biological resources back into stem cell research? 

    She said it was essential that research continued so that scientists could develop therapies and cures using stem cells. 

    "There are no real successes as yet but there will be in the future, as long as research continues, and although many obstacles still remain, stem cell-based therapy is a most promising treatment for the future."

    UCT department of human biology's Professor Susan Kidson said stem cell banks had been around for 30 years. 

    "But there is still a lot of hype. Little has been proven in the treatment of nervous system disorders. It is still in tests and trials. We need to be cautious because it is seen as an absolute cure."

    She said a public cord blood bank, whose resources would be available to all, would be a great resource. 

    "But who would pay? The government has other dire medical health issues it needs to attend to."

  • Source: Sunday Argus on May 24, 2009
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