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Stem cell express

March 20, 2011

Umbilical cord stems cells may hold the key to treating diseases like cancer and diabetes but preparing the cells for treatment is tricky. One team is trying to make it easier by taking their gear on the road.

Woman inspects stem cells in test tubes
Stem cells may prove useful in treating deadly diseasesImage: Vita 34

In the squeaky clean medical compound of Vita 34 near central Leipzig, a constant hissing fills the room as vapors pour from liquid nitrogen tanks. At -196 degrees Celsius, blood samples from umbilical cords can be stored for a lifetime.

The blood is taken shortly after a mother gives birth. Parents' hope and expectation is that if the child develops certain diseases later on in life, the stem cells can be used in treatment. This method is said to be safer than chemotherapy or bone marrow transplantation.

Vita 34's chief physician Eberhard Lampeter said stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood have one decisive advantage: They are young.

Employees remove stem cells from storage tank
The cells are stored in liquid nitrogen tanks at -196 degrees CelsiusImage: Vita 34

"They have not yet faced all the infective attacks that you experience during your life," he told Deutsche Welle. "Nature is good to us, meaning that everyone can start their lives without virus infections. That is where the importance of cord blood comes in. The cells have a larger potential to grow and develop into various other cell types in the body."

As such, these blood cells may have the potential to effectively treat non-hereditary diseases, including certain kinds of leukemia and type-1 diabetes.

Mobile team hits the road

While public and private umbilical cord blood banks exist in many industrialized nations, Vita 34 has gone one step further. It has developed a mobile unit that can travel to ensure that umbilical cord blood samples are prepared safely for transplantation.

Stefanie Jahr, one of 10 specialists who run the mobile unit, said the team is completely self-sufficient, and does not rely on any technology from the hospitals it visits.

Employees in cell-cleaning room
Stem cells must be properly cleaned to prepare them for transplantationImage: Vita 34

"We take along a special device for washing the stem cells," she said. "We also have our special thawing machine, an electrical ice box, a welding device and a special microscope. So we bring everything we need for preparing the transplants."

This self-sufficiency may be necessary in cases where improper treatment of the stem cells renders them useless.

"Our experience has been that hospitals have different procedures to treat the transplants before application," said Dietmar Egger, who monitors the quality of the harvested stem cells. "Some hospitals don't even have the right equipment to wash the cells before application. That's why we also have a mobile working bench to do the job properly, plus a lot of other devices. The main point really is to standardize the preparation of the transplants."

High costs, low payoff?

Not everyone is convinced that a privately run umbilical cord blood bank is a blessing rather than a rip-off. Donors pay thousands of euros to have the samples frozen, plus annual fees to keep them frozen for the period agreed in the contract.

Gerhard Ehninger, chairman of the German Society for Hematology and Oncology, said the chances of actually profiting from the scheme are minimal - at least for the time being.

"Your own blood engrafts much better, but what it cannot do is act against leukemia or another malignant disease," Ehninger said. "You can certainly ask the parents to participate in an experimental study, but they should not pay thousands of euros for it."

Investing in a child's future

Dr. Eberhard Lampeter
Lampeter said the potential for using the stem cells will grow as the donors ageImage: Vita 34

Lampeter dismissed these arguments. Since Vita 34's founding in 1997, it has stored 76,000 blood samples and released 16 of those for treatment, he said - a ratio of about one to 5,000. While this number may seem small, he said the potential for treatment will grow as the donors get older.

"Don't forget, the children who've profited so far have been younger than five years," he said. "These kids usually don't yet suffer from a lot of the diseases which can be cured through cord blood. So the ratio is actually better than critics would like to make you believe."

However good the treatment ratio may or may not be, many Vita 34 clients simply see the storage of cord blood as an investment in the future of their kids.

"In the end, they convinced us that we're doing our children a big favor," said Jörg Richter, a father who chose to have his child's cord blood stored with Vita 34. "After all, you spend so much money in your life on less important stuff. So why should you be a miser when it comes to the well-being of your kids?"

Author: Hardy Graupner, Leipzig / acb

Editor: Ben Knight