Probing Question: Is stem cell banking worthwhile?

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Imagine saving your child's life long before it needs saving. Proponents of stem cell banking suggest that such scenarios are now becoming possible.

Stem cells—a special class of master cells that can repair or replace damaged tissue—are the subjects of worldwide research into their potential as treatments for a range of conditions including cancer, Parkinson's disease, heart disease, spinal-cord injuries and Alzheimer's. Most commonly drawn from bone marrow or umbilical cord blood, these versatile primitive cells are able to morph into any number of specialized cells within the body.

Currently, stem cells are primarily used in experimental treatments for blood-based cancers, and we're likely years away from other life-saving applications. However, some parents are opting to bank a few ounces of blood drawn painlessly from their newborn's umbilical cord at birth, says Kent Vrana, professor and chair of the Penn State department of pharmacology. Umbilical blood is rife with stem cells, and would otherwise be thrown away, Vrana notes. For some parents, the average of $2,000 charged by cord blood banks for extracting, freezing and storing their child's cord blood is a small price to pay for what they see as "biological insurance." The hope? That presently undeveloped treatments will be able to be custom-tailored for their child in the event of an illness decades from now.

"I think placental stem cell banking for newborns is reasonable," says Vrana. "If it had been available when my babies were born, I would have done it. Their stem cells may end up having truly unique characteristics."

But the banking of adult stem cells is a different story, Vrana cautions. For adults, the process is invasive, involving injections of a drug that causes a person's bone marrow to spill cells into the blood stream. The blood is run through a machine to extract the stem cells and then returned to the body. There are a variety of unpleasant side effects—and the price tag? Over $7,000.

"Certainly there is potential," says Vrana, "However, I am wary of companies that charge an inordinate amount of money using the scare tactic that 'You had better do it now before it's too late.'"

Stem cells can be extracted from many patients even after they become sick, he notes, and most treatments using the cells are still in the experimental stages. "Banking for adults doesn't seem worth it to me. We don't know what to do with the cells now and they can be harvested later. Several companies are selling very expensive packages claiming that the stem cells may get "worn out" so you had better save them now. I just don't buy that argument."

"This is an exciting time in the stem cell field," Vrana concludes. "Diseases will be cured. We just need to continue to study all the tools in the stem cell toolbox."

Kent Vrana, Ph. D., is professor and head of pharmacology at the Milton S. Hershey College of Medicine. You can reach him at kvrana@psu.edu.

Last Updated October 06, 2008