Stem cells banks have proven to be beneficial in many ways. Then again, the debates regarding its preservation have triggered a wide range of concerns related to its effectiveness as well as the costs incurred by the parent to do so. More importantly, the terms associated with stem cell research have often left many parents in a state of bewilderment. On the one hand parents  will want what is best for the child ,while on the other the costs, and lack of information makes the decision to invest in stem cell banking difficult.

Stem cells – the fundamentals

Firstly, what are stem cells?

Experts term them to be those elements of the human body that are ‘unspecialised’ and have the potential to develop into specific cells or tissues.

Stem cells are divided into two primary categories:  Embryonic stem cells as well as adult stem cells. The embryonic stem cells, as the name suggests, exist in the human embryo and are often said to be present in the blood of umbilical cord of the baby. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, refer to those stem cells that are present in the tissues of an adult human being.

The impact of stem cell therapy

Experts state that stem cell research, performed in different parts of the world are likely to have other implications while treating patients from other ethnic backgrounds.

“Indians have a different body constituency. As a result, the research might not necessarily yield favourable results among Indians,” explains Dr Radhakrishnan, Head of the division, Laboratory Medicine and Molecular Diagnostics, Rajiv Gandhi Centre of Biotechnology in Thirvananthapuram, Kerala. Thus, leading to a change in results due to Stem Cell therapy.

Recent research has depicted the many application of the use of stem cells in various situations. Stem cells are said to be used to cure a wide range of health concerns including spinal injuries, diabetes and even cancer.

What is a viable stem cell

A viable stem cell is one that retains the cellular properties and are usable for therapeutic purposes.

Stem cell therapy, a relative new field in medicine, is very promising technique for treating a host of diseases. For therapy there needs to sufficient concentration of viable stem cells. The necessary concentration will depend on the type of disease that you are trying to treat.

How are they stored?

Stem cell storage is a key aspect of it is long term viability. Storage conditions ensure that cells don't degrade or degenerate as time progresses. After all stem cells are stored with the argument that perhaps 30 years later the cells can utilized to cure an eventuality that may come up.

Presently, stem cells are frozen and preserved with the help of extenders, most often nitrogen. Theoretically, it should last till the end of eternity or till the liquid nitrogen lasts.

However, an argument that is raised is that at present there are very few long term studies to show how effective this method of preservation is. Further, in the future the technology to store stem cells will considerably improve. So whether current stem cell preservation techniques are good enough or whether technology obsolescence will render stem cells stored with current technology nonviable in the future -  only time will tell.

The dilemma of a new parent

Despite the many sources of information, most parents fail to discuss the procedures associated with the act. This often due to:

  1. Lack of awareness
  2. Pressure from friends and relatives
  3. Unauthentic sources of information

Thereby, leading to expensive hospital bills or a state of never-ending inquisitiveness.

So, here are five types of questions that you could ask your doctor before considering stem cell banking at the time of childbirth.

Type 1 - Know more about the storage facilities

Every living cell has a life span, and so do stem cells that have been collected.Thus, storage is a critical to ensuring the cells viability and usability in the future. Some questions that you should ask your doctor and stem cell service provider are

  1. How long can they be stored?
  2. Who can guarantee the viability of the stem cells?
  3. Is there a risk of these cells being contaminated or infected during its long years of storage?
  4.  Can the change in storage methods lead to the destruction of my baby’s stem cells?
  5. Are there other ways of preserving these cells?

Type 2 – All about stem cell banks

It is important for parents to understand the different types of stem cells banks and the potential pros and cons of each.  Like a blood bank, these banks need to be well supervised and regulated to ensure stem cells are stored safely and retain their long term viability.

  1. Is a pooled non-profit stem cell bank better than an individualised commercial stem cell bank?
  2. Does it cost less to store stem cells in a pooled non-profit stem cell bank instead of commercial stem cell banks?
  3. What are the recognised, reputed and recommended stem cell banks of my country
  4. Do these facilities undergo regular inspections or checks? How often are these checks conducted?
  5. How can I go about opting for the right stem cell bank?
  6. Will these facilities contain embryonic and adult stem cells?
  7. Do stem cell banks cater to people of only one ethnic group?

Type 3 - Questions about its use 

  1. Can these stem cells be used at any point in time for my baby and siblings? (Even after attaining adulthood)
  2. Do these cells have to further processed depending upon the purpose of the stem cell therapy?

(Eg: Can the embryonic stem cells be used for blood diseases and neurological diseases in their original form? Or are there different processes for using these stem cells for blood disorders and neurological disorders?)

Type 4 - Queries about Stem Cell Therapy

  1. Is Stem cell therapy always successful?
  2. Will the volume of stem cells available from the umbilical cord blood of my baby be sufficient for a complete therapy?
  3. Will a commercial stem cell bank compensate me at any stage if the stored stem cells are inappropriate for therapy at the later stage?
  4. Can these cells be used by any person belonging to the same gene pool as my baby?
  5. What are the health concerns associated with stem cell therapy?
  6. How long would it take for the person to recover completely post the stem cell therapy?

Type 5 - Provisions in health insurance schemes

  1. Do insurance companies have provisions for stem cell banking?