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Dr Peter Saunders

The government needs to invest more in cord blood

Dr Peter Saunders was, until December 2018, the Chief Executive of CMF. Prior to that he was a general surgeon in New Zealand, Kenya and the UK. He is now the CEO of the International Christian Medical and Dental Association (ICMDA), a global movement uniting national Christian medical and dental organisations in over 60 countries,
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

More than two years ago CMF welcomed a new bill which encouraged the donation at childbirth of umbilical cord blood and its storage for public use. It also called on the government to invest more actively in developing the NHS cord stem cell bank.

MP David Burrowes’ Umbilical Cord Blood (Donation) Bill aimed to increase awareness of the value of umbilical cord blood in treating diseases and to promote further research for new treatment methods using cord blood stem cells. The Bill required doctors to inform all parents of the benefits of collection and storage of cord blood, and sought to promote collection from specific shortage groups, such as minority ones including mixed race families and families where there was a history of cord blood treatable diseases.

Sadly the bill was not granted parliamentary time to progress. The government instead was at the time pursuing its agenda of cytoplasmic animal human hybrid (cybrid) research through the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill – a bill that is now law. Very shortly after this bill was passed new research suggested that this avenue of research was very unlikely ever to be successful – and at the time I predicted animal human hybrid research would become a ‘farcical footnote in history’.

Today scientists reported exciting new developments suggesting that cord blood may well hold the answer for people with leukemia requiring bone marrow transplants and quite possibly also for those suffering from other similar diseases. The BBC website carried the story of Natalie Salama-Levy who is unable to donate cord blood from her baby due at the Royal Free Hospital in London next month because the hospital lacks the facilities to collect and store it. Ironically Natalie’s husband Lionel is the chair of ‘The cord blood charity’ and was inspired to become involved following the death of a close friend from leukaemia.

In 2008 only three NHS hospitals were collecting cord blood. It seems that the situation has not improved much since. Cord blood has already cured around 10,000 people around the world, but despite this our own UK cord blood banking facilities are woefully behind the times. We should instead be making this simple and uncontroversial technology much more readily accessible.

The Anthony Nolan Trust said today that 50,000 cord bloods would meet the UK’s need for transplant and research purposes but the NHS has collected only 13,000 cords over 13 years and of these only 279 have been suitable for transplant.

In 2006 the number of live births in England and Wales reached 669,601 compared with 645,835 in 2005. The number of live births has been increasing every year since 2001. If the government had been more active in encouraging the storage of cord blood in the last five years, rather than over-hyping hopes about hybrid embryonic stem cells, we could potentially have had millions of samples of stem cells banked for treatment by now. Instead they intend to invest only £10 million to increase the size of the bank to 20,000 stored units by 2013.

Posted by Dr Peter Saunders
CMF Chief Executive

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