What if you had the ability to regenerate bits of your body, repair a damaged organ, replace damaged cells and tissues with healthy ones or even regenerate organs failing prematurely? 20 or 30 years ago this may have sounded a bit Star Trek, but the fact is this is getting closer to reality thanks to stem cell research. The words "stem cells" often conjure up all sorts of images and thoughts in people's heads - usually the image of a mouse with an ear growing on its back - but their potential for use is incredible.
So what are these magical stem cells? Well, we all started out as a few simple cells. But we have ended up as collections of billions of vastly different cells all doing different jobs. There are adult and embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are our building blocks, so to speak - they can generate into any type of cell in the body (given the right encouragement). However, there are plenty of ethical considerations with them as they are only present in developing embryos. There are other sources of stem cells too some which are relatively easier to obtain than others for example bone marrow stem cells and cord blood stem cells. Cord blood stem cells are far better in both quality and quantity and can easily be collected too.
What can they be used for? So far, cord blood stem cells have been very successfully used to treat a range of blood disorders like leukaemia, thalassaemia, sickle cell anaemia and to treat some serious immune system deficiencies. Stem cells have also been successfully used for some skin grafting and wound healing, as well helping to heal damaged corneas in the eyes.
The potential of stem cells is where things are particularly exciting. As stem cells can theoretically form any type of cell, their use is being trialled and experimented across a huge range of diseases - spinal injuries, dementia, diabetes and one day it may even be a reality that they let us grow whole new organs for transplantation.
How do you obtain them? Adult stem cells are present in all of us in various places, particularly bone marrow and blood. However, stem cells taken from the umbilical cord of babies at birth have been shown to have more "plasticity", i.e. they can transform into a wider range of cells and thus have more uses. Think of them as the "youngest and freshest" of the adult stem cells.
The London-based organisation Smart Cells has been collecting cord blood stem cells since 2000. They were the first company to do so in the UK, and since that time have collected and stored over 40,000 babies' cord blood samples. They've got an intricate team in place that can collectyour baby's cord blood when they're born - the most important bit really. If you have a vaginal delivery, they can send a collection specialist to you to get this done at (understandably) short notice and if it's a c-section, often the consultant themselves can do the collection with the necessary kit.
How are they processed and stored? Once the kit arrives in the lab, things move pretty quickly. The team at Smart Cells were kind enough to give me a tour of their lab and facilities, and I must say it was mighty impressive.
The final obtained product after this process will be highly rich in white blood cells and stem cells and it will be stored in a dual compartment cryogenic bag. A preservative agent will then be added to the final product to protect the cells before its frozen in a controlled rate freeze whereby the temperature is gradually brought down to -160°C. After this the sample will be transferred to a long term storage location in a liquid nitrogen vapour phase tank and will be stored at a temperature below -175°C.
Smart Cells International uses the volume reduction technique to process their umbilical cord blood (UCB) samples where by the volume of UCB is reduced to a standard volume. This process means that the red blood cells are depleted while the white blood cells which contain the stem cells are recovered. Red blood cells can be toxic and can cause adverse reactions should the sample need to be used for treatment, hence the need to deplete them.
Each sample is stored for 25 years - hopefully more than enough time should it be needed. If ever a sample is required, Smart Cells will ship this to you anywhere at all in the world as soon as possible - something they have done 16 times to date (you can read more about that here). And it's a good point to note that the samples can often be used not just for your baby, but potentially for their siblings too.
All in all, it's a very impressive operation Smart Cells are running. I left them thinking of it as akin to an insurance policy. Yes, the chances are very slim that you'd ever need to use the sample, but if it was needed, I think it would be a small price to pay (and you never know what potential the sample might have in the future). I'll certainly be considering it for any kids I have in the future.
A big thank you to Kauser Hussain and the team at Smart Cells for their generous time and the photographs used above