Doctors object to companies offering to store cord blood

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: (Published 24 November 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:1203
  1. Zosia Kmietowicz
  1. London

    Doctors in Britain have criticised companies for persuading expectant parents to part with up to £700 ($980) to have blood collected from their newborn baby's umbilical cord to protect against future illnesses when little evidence exists to support the practice.

    The possible uses of stem cells from umbilical blood are so limited that the chance of ever needing them is remote for most families, said advisers from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. They accuse companies of exploiting pregnant women by offering them a “once in a lifetime opportunity” that is “like freezing a spare immune system” for use if the child or a sibling develops a serious illness.

    “We are concerned that commercial companies are targeting pregnant women with such emotive literature when the scientific evidence is not yet there to back up their claims,” said Professor Nick Fisk, chairman of the college's scientific advisory committee, whose stance on this issue is backed by the Department of Health.

    “Stem cells collected from umbilical cords have been successfully used to treat some illnesses such as leukaemia, but it is speculation to suggest that they may be used in future years to cure a wider range of illnesses such as Parkinson's disease, diabetes, and heart disease,” he said

    Even in childhood leukaemia, where stem cells have been frequently used in the past, there is a move away from using cord blood transplants because other types of treatment are just as effective, he added. And recent research suggests that cord blood is not a good source of non-haemopoietic stem cells and that these stem cells can be found in other tissues. “Cord blood has been collected in the United States for five to 10 years, but since then the science has moved on,” said Professor Fisk.

    The college is also worried that the rising trend in collecting cord blood is putting women's and babies' health in danger as labour ward staff are being asked to perform an extra task that distracts them from their normal duties at a critical time. The blood has to be collected and labelled in multiple syringes just after the baby, but before the placenta, is delivered. Moreover, there is the additional worry that doctors and midwives could face legal action if the sample they take turns out to be faulty, warned the college.

    At least three companies in the United Kingdom are known to offer storage facilities for cord blood, and their advertising material reaches over 90% of women receiving antenatal care in the United Kingdom.

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