public banking available to all

Public banking available to all. Keri Noonan, an expectant mother in Brantford, Ont., first heard about umbilical cord blood banks from a work colleague who had used a private bank when her baby was born. When the topic came up again in her prenatal class, she began investigating to see if cord blood banking was something she wanted for her family.

From pamphlets in her midwife's office, Noonan learned that cord blood — which is rich in stem cells — could be stored at a private bank for her baby and used if necessary to treat some childhood cancers and other diseases. Another family member could also use the blood if the need arose.

Cord blood is painlessly collected at birth with no risk to the mother or baby, and then stored so that it's ready for use at any time.

Cord blood is painlessly collected at birth with no risk to the mother or baby, and then stored so that it's ready for use at any time. (Luis Enrique Ascui/Reuters)

That storage service came at an average cost of about $1,000 up front, with an annual storage fee of about $100.

"I didn't like how the private banks marketed their service to me," adds Noonan. "It was as if they were implying 'if you love your baby, you will do this.'"

The reality is that most privately banked cord blood will never be used by the child or family members, according to Dr. John Doyle, program director of blood and marrow transplant at Sick Kids in Toronto. "It's a very slim chance you will use it if there's no identified cancers or conditions in the family."

That said, Doyle believes that private banking is a good choice for families who have a history of cancer, or where a child has cancer and the mother is expecting another baby. "Without the private banks, I don't have that option," he says, referring to guaranteed access to stored stem cells that could be used for treatment.

Upon further investigation, Noonan decided family banking wasn't something she wanted to do. "We don't have a history of cancer in my family and the cost was a barrier," she says.

Public banking

Still, Noonan had mixed feelings about letting this potentially valuable source of stem cells go to waste. Then, when reading a pregnancy book supplied by her local health unit, she learned there was another option — donating the cord blood to a public bank.

The biggest difference between a private or "family" bank and a public bank is that the cord blood stored in the latter is available to anyone who needs it, not just the family that donated it. And while some of the cord blood is used to treat patients, much of it is also used by researchers to develop new treatments.

"I was really surprised about the public option, because my midwife never mentioned it and not one person in my prenatal class talked about it," she says.

Noonan is not alone. Across Canada, expectant parents are hearing more and more about the benefits of cord blood, but many are unaware of what options exist for storing or sharing this valuable resource.

"It hasn't been easy for me to find the information that I want," Noonan says.

Cells for Life is a family cord blood bank based in Toronto that also collects for its public non-profit bank, called Victoria Angel Registry of Hope. The public bank currently has 200 samples stored and waiting for use.

Although it would seem family banks are competing with public banks for cord blood, this isn't the case, according to Jane Virro, administrative director of both Cells for Life and the Victoria Angel Registry of Hope. With about 360,000 births in Canada each year and only about 10,000 cords stored privately, there's no reason for private and public banks to feel like they are competing, says Virro.

"There are more than enough samples to support both family and public banking," she says.

"What we're saying is that if you aren't going to bank privately, please, please consider donating that cord blood for someone to use who needs it — either sick patients or researchers," she adds.

Still, even for those who want to donate it's sometimes simply not possible because of where they live. While there are three public banks in Canada — one each in Alberta, Quebec and Ontario — there is no nationally funded public bank at the moment. In fact, Canada is one of the few developed nations without a national public cord blood bank program.

Victoria Angel Registry of Hope is funded by private and corporate donations, and the profits from Cells for Life. However, it has limited resources to put towards collecting samples from willing donors.

"Unfortunately, due to limited funding, some willing pregnant donors are turned away," says Virro.

"You might want to donate to a public bank, but unless you live near one of these three public banks, the reality is that with the current system you're not going to be able to," she adds.

National program

That could be about to change. In June, the deputy ministers of health from the Canadian provinces met and determined that plans for a national cord blood bank should move forward. It is now a matter of obtaining funding to establish a national bank, which would cost about $5 million to set up and $3 million in annual operating costs.

Until a stable source of funding is worked out, though, Canada's public banks simply lack the resources to gather and store large numbers of donated cord blood samples. As a result, Canadian doctors must look to foreign banks to find matches for their patients.

Last year, in all, Canada imported 86 cord blood samples for treatments at an average price $30,000 per sample, which covers the expenses of collecting, cataloguing and storing the stem cells.

This is why Virro believes it makes sense for the government to fund a national cord blood program. She points to Australia, which has three public cord blood banks and used 222 samples last year, either within that country or exported to another nation.

"That would give them about $7 million in revenue," she says. "So if you look at that, a nationally funded cord blood bank could be self-sustaining."

"We just need to receive the funding to collect the samples and get them stored," she adds. ( )

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