New Delhi: Several private companies have established umbilical cord blood banks in India saying they would be a life saver for thousands. But some health experts term this as "unethical and of negligible value".
The umbilical cord blood is a rich source of stem cells and is believed to be vital in saving the life of people suffering from leukaemia, thalassemia, blood cancer, bone marrow imbalances and many such critical diseases.
However, some haematologists believe that this is just a ploy by a few private companies to exploit Indians by making false promises.
"It's a pure commercial endeavour and does not hold any relevance at this point of time. It's both unethical and of negligible value," said Rajat Kumar, professor of haematology at the frontline All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) here.
"In the name of regenerative medicine and promises to cure all kinds of illnesses, these private bodies are exploiting the emotions of apprehensive parents and thus looting money. There is no regulating body in this field as well.
"India is yet to register any success in stem cell transplants and has even failed to provide first line drugs. So, why are we thinking of third stage treatments? It's really beyond logic," Kumar, who organised an all India haematology conference at AIIMS, told IANS.
There are currently four major umbilical cord blood banks in India - Reliance Life Science in Navi (New) Mumbai, Cryobanks in Gurgaon, Life Cell in Chennai and Cryo Stemcell in Bangalore.
While nearly 200,000 samples have been stored the world over, around 10,000 cord blood samples have already been stored in India for future use.
At Cryobanks, a family can save the cord blood of their baby for Rs.60,000 for a period of 21 years. Cryo Stemcell takes Rs.30,000 as a one time storing charge and Rs.2,500 per year as maintenance fee.
The stem cells collected from the umbilical cord are stored within nitrogen vapours at minus 190 degrees Celsius.
Bharat Jain, professor at the G.R. Medical College, Gwalior, also disagreed with the theory of storing blood from the umbilical cord right after the birth of a child.
"There is a hype about cord blood banking. There is no data to show that cord blood is superior to bone marrow. In many conditions like Thalassemia major, bone marrow transplant is superior, as cord blood transplantation has a higher risk of graft rejection," Jain maintained.
According to Kumar, the rejection rate of cord blood is as high as 29 percent.
"These private players claim to save the stem cells for a period of 21 years but in all likelihood, people below the age of 21 never face such critical illness," he said.
Tulika Seth, also a haematologist, agreed.
"Most of the diseases that benefit from stem cell use occur during old age, when the required doseage of preserved cord blood cells would be insufficient or unviable," she maintained.
"Moreover, stem cells could be collected from the bone marrow or mobilized from the peripheral blood, as is the current practice. Thus, failure to collect cord blood cells at birth is unlikely to be detrimental," Seth maintained.
Doctors also said that India is yet to achieve success in stem cell transplants.
"At AIIMS, we have suffered a setback. Doctors at Apollo Hospital too conducted a transplant but faced rejection," Kumar pointed out.
Private players do not agree but also speak of the need for regulation.
"Saving the umbilical cord blood provides an opportunity to the family to secure the life of their children. It holds a lot of promise for regenerative medicine but what is required is regulation," Cryo Stemcell chief S.G.A. Rao contended.
"We are against sheer commercialisation but believe that private cord blood banking needs proper regulation," said Rao, who was recently in the capital.