The prospect of being able to store your own stem cells as a form of future 'biological insurance' is for many, very tempting. Since the late 1990s, and in spite of the reportedly low odds that they will ever be used, parents have seized the opportunity to collect and store stem cells from the umbilical cord blood of their newborn babies. They do so in the hope that future medical advancements will allow the cells to be used as treatment for a number of diseases should the need arise. This service has been facilitated by a number of commercial cord blood companies worldwide, most recently in the UK by Virgin Health Bank.
In the US, however, it would appear that the storage of stem cells for future use has been taken one step further. This week, at the annual meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, California-based company StemLifeLine revealed a new service being offered - the storage of stem cells created using excess IVF embryos. The company's website claims that such stem cell lines 'may one day' help provide therapies for the client and their family. Their marketing strategy urges prospective clients to think of the service as 'an investment for the future'.
The announcement has been fiercely criticised by a number of experts in the stem cell field. Stephen Minger of King's College, London warned of the dangers of allowing companies to profit from the claims of as yet, unproven science. Speaking to the Guardian, Alison Murdoch, head of the Newcastle Fertility Centre, said that the scheme raised two major concerns. First, that the service was premature and secondly that it risked shifting doctors' priorities over which embryo should be used to produce a healthy baby in IVF treatment. Fertility expert, Lord Robert Winston, commented that the scheme provided a clear example of the exploitation of vulnerable parents wishing to do the best for their families. He added 'I would be horrified if anyone tried to do this in Britain'.
Whether the facility proves to benefit those fortunate enough to be able to pay - the fee is reported to be in the region of £8,500 for a 20-year term - or a mere money-making scheme, remains to be seen. It does, however, come in the wake of similar schemes designed to attract a particularly vulnerable target group. In December 2005, commercial cord blood company, Smartcells International, ran an advertising campaign for the sale of Christmas gift certificates with the slogan 'Cells are not just for life - they're for Christmas'. Hot on the cord blood industry's heels came a Texan-based company set up to offer the storage of baby teeth, which are a source of adult stem cells. In 2006, BioEden Incorporated, opened its facility offering parents the chance to preserve stem cells from teeth to the tune of a $595 processing fee and a further $89 a year storage.
Sources and References
Commercial US stem cell bank condemned in UK
New Service Allows IVF Couples To Use Surplus Embryos for Creation of Stem Cell Lines