STORY: Two years ago three year-old Rishi Bhanushali was extremely anemic. He was suffering from Beta Thalassemia major, a genetic blood disorder. He had to undergo blood transfusion every month since he was four months old.
But now it’s a different case. The cheerful tot, from Bilimora in South Gujarat, runs around, plays and eats well. He has grown taller by few inches and put on some weight as well.
He will not have to go through the ordeal of regular blood transfusion anymore for the rest of his life. Thanks to cord blood banking. Preserved stem cells extracted from umbilical cord blood and placenta saved Rishi’s life.
“We bought exact 6/6 match of Rishi’s stem cells from Reliance Life Sciences (RLS). Dr Sandip Shah transplanted the cells in him at Gujarat Cancer Research Hospital in Ahmedabad,” says Rishi’s grandfather Bhimji Bhai Bhanushali over the phone.
Rishi was hospitalised for about one and half months and for the remaining nearly two years the Bhanushalis had to remain in Ahmedabad “for the child’s regular check up.”
The entire treatment cost the Bhanushalis Rs15 lakhs (US$35,000) including Rs2.5 lakhs (US$5,672) for buying stem cells. But they say “it is worth it” to have their “child back as normal”.
For two-year-old Harshil Nanda, stem cells transplant is a “gift of life”. It’s been eight months since he got the transplant to cure Beta Thalassemia. “For six months we haven’t had the need to transfuse blood in him,” said Ravi Nanda, Rishi’s uncle when contacted through a phone. The Nandas, who have come from Jamnagar to Ahmedabad for treatment, also bought 6/6 stem cells match from RLS.
In both cases getting stem cells from bone marrow was difficult to cure the disease as it’s rare to find 100 per cent match of bone marrow stem cells between the donor and the receiver, which is not the case with cord stem cells.
The chance of finding matching bone marrow stem cells is just one per cent in 11,00,000, says Aasim Ghazi, marketing head, Cryobanks India Private Limited, New Delhi.
The difficulty in finding an exact match of bone marrow stem cells is making the usage of cord blood stem cells an attractive and effective alternative.
Umbilical cord until recently was considered a medical waste which used to be thrown away once the baby was born. But various researches establish that umbilical cord and placenta could supply “the same kind of blood-forming (hematopoietic) stem cells as a bone marrow donor”.
Stem cells are master cells from the donor which are transplanted into the child who is ill and these cells manufacture new healthy blood cells and enhance the child’s blood-producing and immune system capability. These cells have far lower chances of rejection by the receiving body.
Cord blood cells are useful in curing diseases like leukemia, thalassemia, blood cancer, anemia, lymphoma, immune deficiency and other disease which can not be treated with medicines alone. And research is on whether these cells can be used in treating Alzheimer's Disease, Cardiac Disease, Diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's Disease etc.
Seeing the increasing use of this ‘medical waste’ more and more parents to-be are opting for cord blood banking.
Jyoti Kaul in New Delhi is one such parent who has banked her son’s cord blood cells with Cryobanks. “We don’t know whether we will need it or not. It’s a medical insurance we may need. It’s a future investment in health. This medical waste can save someone’s life. It’s not only that we will use it for us, god forbid. We can also donate it,” reasons Jyoti for opting cord blood banking.
Today she propagates it to other would-be-parents even though it’s an added expenditure. Another strong reason for her to go for it was the expensive lifestyle which discourages having a second child.
“So when we are more or less one-child oriented, it’s important that we do such kind of medical investments. In today’s time there are so many life-threatening diseases and one can’t become mother everyday. And to secure your child’s future health if this is one option I would go for it,” says she, adding that the way medical science is growing stem cell securing will be a common thing.
“If we collect residual blood and extract stem cells from the umbilical cord, they are 100 per cent match to the donor and 75 per cent match to the relatives.” says Aasim.
The main reason of banking newborn’s cord blood is that parents have a child or a close relative with a family medical history of diseases “that can be treated with bone marrow transplants.”
There are rare chances of needing the cord blood for a child in a family without history of diseases. But parents can still donate it as it would add to the pool of stem cells which can help any person in the world to find a suitable match.
Cord blood banking can especially benefit India as it is “home to the highest number of Thalassemic patients in the world. Treating them through cord blood cells can be an easy answer as the country with the highest population has the highest number of deliveries,” says Aasim.
One can get cord blood banked for a period of 21 years and for a price
tag ranging from Rs59,900 to Rs1,19,000 depending on the scheme and
the bank one is opting for. To make payment easy, these banks have
introduced installment schemes.
Seeing the potential of stem cells in curing prevalent diseases in India, cord blood banks are increasing their operations in the country.
“According to analysts, Indian stem cell banking market will reach $540 million by 2010, contributing 17% of the world market. It is reported that there are about 10 players in the Indian market who have been increasing their storage capacity since 2007 to meet the increasing demand,” says KV Subramaniam, President and CEO, Reliance Life Sciences, Mumbai.
Mumbai-based RLS, New Delhi-based Cryobanks India Private Limited, Chennai-based LifeCell International Pvt. Ltd and Kolkata-based Cordlife Sciences are among other cord blood banks in India which are seeing a steady growth in their operations.
In India, the concept is now picking up pace. “In just five years LifeCell have close to 25,000 clients, while the overall market penetration is growing almost at around 50% growth year on year,” says V. Ravi Shankar, General Manager, Corporate Communications & Marketing,LifeCell International, Chennai.
LifeCell with over 60 centres across India has around 25,000 samples preserved with its lab. However, it has a capacity of preserve up to 1,00,000 samples. Ten clients from LifeCell have used their babies’ stem cells for treatment.
The US-based Cryobanks with 85 branches across the country, has 15,000 parents storing their children’s cord blood cells with the bank.
“There are more than 5,000 cryopreserved cord blood units in the RLS cord blood repository in Navi Mumbai.” RLS says it has set adequate storage capacity to deal with the rising demand for cord blood banking services in the near future.
To enhance awareness, RLS conducts programmes on cord blood banking and gives free counselling sessions to parents-to-be, which includes a tour of the cord blood repository. Parents can register for these programs online at www.relicord.com.
Apart from India, RLS has set up operations in the Middle East and parts of South East Asia. Cryobanks too will be available in these countries.
Cord blood is not collected from “mothers-to-be whose deliveries are associated with certain neonatal and/or maternal complications. Also when the expecting mother is tested positive /reactive for any infectious disease marker cord blood collections are avoided,” says Sbramanaiam.
Cord blood stem cells, which can be preserved life long, are proving life saving panacea—an attractive alternative to bone marrow cells.