When Stem Cell Research Gets Personal (Part 2)

Interview With Bioethicist on Umbilical Cord Cell Banking

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By Kathleen Naab

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania, JUNE 9, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The debate about stem cell research is under way in legislatures around the world, but there is an element to the research that is debated within the home.

This intimate level of the discussion happens every time a pregnant couple faces the possibility of storing their newborn's umbilical cord blood (or rather, the stem cells it contains) in hopes of future treatment or cures, should they be necessary.

ZENIT spoke with Father Alfred Cioffi about stem cell research and the particular promise offered by these powerful cells found in umbilical cord blood.

Father Cioffi, a priest of the Archdiocese of Miami, is a research ethicist for the National Catholic Bioethics Center. He has done extensive study and work in bioethics and research, focusing his first doctoral thesis from Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University on "The Fetus as Medical Patient: Moral Dilemmas in Prenatal Diagnosis." He earned a second doctorate in genetics from Purdue University, with a thesis on "The VWG Hypothesis: Predicting Distinct Chromatin Structures from the DNA Sequence."

Part 1 of this interview, detailing the basics of stem cell research, was published Monday.

ZENIT: Going to a more particular question, what is the difference between adult stem cells and stem cells taken from umbilical cord blood?
 
Father Cioffi: Regarding umbilical cord stem cells, bioethically, they represent a special category. It turns out that the blood inside the umbilical cord also contains stem cells. Since the umbilical cord comes from the human embryo (or fetus), then these are embryonic stem cells. The umbilical cord is normally discarded once the baby is born, but these embryonic stem cells can be extracted from that cord blood without having to do the least damage to the baby. In a sense, this is the best of both worlds because, on the one hand, umbilical cord stem cells have the plasticity and high-quality healing capacity of embryonic stem cells and, on the other, the baby certainly doesn’t have to be killed in order to obtain them.

ZENIT: So then let's turn to another side of this issue: parents considering storing their newborn's stem cells. Some -- perhaps most -- pregnancy books, obstetricians and pediatricians are cautious about recommending umbilical cord banking and even somewhat discouraging. Would you say this is a justified attitude? Does it reflect a lack of information? Or perhaps the effects of an anti-life ideology?

Father Cioffi: The downside of umbilical cord stem cells is mostly financial. It is relatively expensive to extract them -- I've heard for the United States, perhaps about $1,000 -- and then there's a monthly fee -- of about $100 -- to store them. How long would they be stored? Essentially, for life, or until the newborn has an injury or disease sometime in his lifetime. And, hopefully, that injury or disease could be healed with the saved umbilical cord stem cells.
 
ZENIT: So what would you recommend for pregnant couples? Is umbilical cord banking worth the price tag?

Father Cioffi: You have to consider several factors: How much is it likely to cost; up front and in the long run? What cures could be expected realistically, and in what time frame? Since cord blood stem cell research is an industry that is just now beginning, perhaps for now the couples who would benefit the most from storing cord blood stem cells are the ones who have another child who was either born with some illness or acquired some illness or injury that could be cured with the stem cells of the sibling, since coming from the same parents the tissue match would likely be a good one.
 
In the long run, umbilical cord stem cells offer tremendous potential, so my bottom-line recommendation for couples considering their storage when giving birth is this: If the couple can afford it (perhaps even with some help from family and friends -- “baby-shower donations accepted!”), then they should do it. Why? Because, in addition to obvious advantages to their baby, siblings and close relatives, this would also further this fledging industry that is indeed very pro-life, and needs all the help it can get in getting started.

If the couple cannot afford it, they could consider putting some “friendly pressure” on their health insurance company to cover, at least, some of the cost. I think that it is important to get health insurance companies to understand that their investment in umbilical cord blood stem cell storage is to their financial advantage in the long run. Why? Because, as more and more cures come about in this field, on average, more and more of their clients would benefit from them -- say, for instance, an injured teenager whose cord cells were saved, and who will now heal better and faster because of them, thus reducing his hospital stay and treatment sessions, thus reducing health care insurance costs.

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On the Net:

National Catholic Bioethics Center: www.ncbcenter.org

Stem Cell Research: www.stemcellresearch.org

Part 1 of this interview: www.zenit.org/article-26117?l=english