Stem-cell bank becomes high-tech life insurance

Thai parents often mark the birth of a child by heading to a bank to set up a savings account.

Now some wealthy Thais are using a different kind of bank they hope will help protect their children’s future well-being—a medical bank that saves stem cells from a baby’s umbilical cord in hopes of providing a cure to any major illnesses that could develop later in life.

Through a Thai-Malaysian venture called Thai Stem Life (TSL), parents are paying 130 000 baht (about R26 500) for what they see as a high-tech insurance policy for their children.

Stem cells are the body’s “master” cells, which can develop into replacement cells that researchers believe could help treat illness and be used in the repairs of damaged organs.

Research with some stem cells is controversial because obtaining them can involve destroying a human embryo. However, stem cells can also be obtained from the umbilical cord shortly after it is cut in a five-minute procedure that poses no danger to the child or the mother, the company says.

If the cells were later used to repair damaged organs or tissue—even when the child grows into an adult—doctors believe there would be no danger of rejection and even a chance to use the cells to treat other members of the family.

Kostas Papadopoulos, the bank’s chief operations officer, says that by saving the stem cells, parents are investing in the hope of giving their children more medical options down the road in life.

“If the babies have leukaemia or cancer in the future, you would have stem cells waiting for their treatment,” he said.

The option is particularly important for babies of mixed ethnicity, Papadopoulos said, because people of mixed race who need organ transplants find it almost impossible to find a match.

While stem-cell treatments remain controversial in many countries, Thailand has few regulations governing their study.

Doctors here are already using stem cells for bone-marrow transplants to treat people with leukaemia, as well as treating other forms of cancer, heart disease and a variety of genetic disorders.

The bank was founded in 2005 by 30 doctors from Bangkok hospitals, who launched it as a joint venture with a Malaysian company called Stem Life, which had opened a similar programme in Malaysia five years earlier.

To harvest the stem cells, doctors use a needle to withdraw blood from a newborn’s umbilical cord. The blood is taken to a lab where it is processed to isolate the stem cells, which are then frozen in liquid nitrogen.

Because of the high price tag, Papadopoulos says the clients so far are “relatively wealthy”, mainly politicians and celebrities—including a former Miss Thailand, Panadda Wongphudee, who has stored the stem cells of her six-month-old daughter.

Panadda (31) said that after she suffered from uterine cancer she wanted to give her daughter an extra medical option in case she develops the disease.
“With advanced medical technology available to better protect the health of my child as well as her siblings in the future, I thought, why not?” she said.

“I don’t want to see my children suffering from diseases in the future, so I decided to buy this as insurance,” said Panadda.

Police Major General Jonggate Aojanepong, a founder and chief executive of TSL, said storing stem cells is no different to investing in an insurance policy.

“You pay 20 000 to 30 000 baht a year in insurance premiums on a Japanese car,” said Jonggate, who also is chief executive of the Jettanin fertility clinic in Bangkok. “If we spend that kind of money to protect our car, why not pay for something that could save the lives of our family members?”

TSL claims to be the largest stem-cell bank in South-East Asia, and the fourth largest in Asia, behind similar operations in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

About 12 000 families have stored stem cells with TSL, with about one-third of them from European or American families living in Thailand, said Papadopoulos.

Similar services are available in the West, usually at a higher price.

Virgin Group entrepreneur Richard Branson in February launched a private stem-cell bank in Britain, and Sweden has launched a national system for parents to voluntarily store stem cells.—AFP

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