Public-private partnership in cord blood banking

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: (Published 20 March 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:642

This article has a correction. Please see:

  1. Nicholas M Fisk, professor of obstetrics and fetal medicine 1,
  2. Rifat Atun, professor of international health management2
  1. 1Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology, Imperial College London, London W12 0NN
  2. 2Tanaka Business School, Imperial College London, London SW7 2AZ
  1. Correspondence to: N M Fisk nfisk{at}
  • Accepted 3 January 2008

Demand for stem cells from cord blood is greater than supply. Nicholas Fisk and Rifat Atun examine the potential of Virgin’s combination of personal and public banking to increase storage

Cord blood is usually discarded at birth but is rich in haemopoietic stem cells, which are increasingly used as an alternative to bone marrow for transplantation. Umbilical blood may also contain mesenchymal stem cells, which in future might be used to repair damaged tissues in a range of diseases such as strokes, heart attacks, renal failure, and diabetes.

Many countries established altruistic public banks of cord blood in response to the increasing need for haemopoietic stem cells for patients with leukaemia and genetic conditions.1 2 3 The limited coverage of these banks, together with the future potential for stem cell cures, led to the introduction of private autologous banking of both haemopoietic and mesenchymal stem cells from cord blood. However, many health professionals oppose private banking because of its speculative and commercial nature. Consumers face an array of providers with conflicting information on the usefulness of banked cord blood. We analyse the growing cord blood banking industry in the UK and the potential impact of Virgin Health Bank’s novel model that provides blood for both personal use and public banks.

Public banks and unmet need

Under the public system parents altruistically donate umbilical cord blood at birth for storage in case a tissue matched patient, usually a child, requires a haemopoietic stem cell transplant. Globally, over 300 000 cord blood samples have been stored and are available for use in a way similar to bone marrow through international registries ( Cord blood does not require as close HLA matching as bone marrow, important for the 15-40% of people who have no suitable match in the marrow registries.

The value of public banks is now well …

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