Umbilical cord blood and stem cell storage are recent catchwords as there are growing numbers of related businesses springing up in the market where consumers pin great hopes for the regenerative capability and possible cures for illnesses.
In a Consumer Council study that collates the views of both physicians and biological scientists on storage and therapies related to umbilical cord blood and stem cells, consumers are advised to think twice on whether it is worth spending money on a service which could be of little use in the future and of which the claims are yet to be clinically proven.
Stem cell storage is promoted in the wake of scientific experiments that pointed to the possibilities of utilizing stem cells to develop and differentiate into various cells that are able to repair damaged or aged tissues.
Private stem cell banks offer to extract stem cells from adult peripheral blood, fat and children's deciduous teeth which could be stored for future medical purposes.
Though the storage of stem cells is viable, the arguments for the use and need of stem cell storage may need stronger support as experts point out that currently only a few diseases are clinically proven to be successfully cured through stem cell treatment.
The International Society for Stem Cell Research expressed reservations about using a single type of stem cell to cure different kind of diseases or using stem cells extracted from one part of the body to cure a disease in another part of the body.
Consumers should take extra caution if they are told that stem cells implanted would automatically find their way inside the body and work to produce therapeutic effect. And it remains unknown whether stem cells stored for therapeutic purposes in the future could be actually applied.
Umbilical cord blood, a rich source of haematopoetic stem cells, is collected at the time of a child's birth for the donor's own treatment for diseases developed later in life. Cord blood transplant, where a transplant is performed to reconstitute the patient's blood supply and immune system after chemotherapy and radiation treatment, is mainly used in treating blood-related and immunological diseases.
However, the odds for autologous cord blood transplant are extremely small - with an estimation of 1 in 20,000, according to medical literature.
As the cord blood and stem cell storage banks developed vigorously, relevant directives and regulations have been promulgated overseas in the United States, European Union, United Kingdom, Australia and Taiwan, to monitor related activities.
In Hong Kong, the storage of stem cells comes under no appropriate regulation for the time being. Consumers may have to take into consideration the efficacy and effectiveness of cord blood or stem cells transplant for treating a specific disease as there could be no guarantees for consumers.
Meanwhile, the Consumer Council also sought experts' inputs on treatments that claimed to utilize stem cells for cosmetic purposes. Though only 6 complaints in respect of such treatments have been received since 2009, consumers are alerted to seek scientific verification and pay attention to the stem cell collection and processing procedures.
And more, doctors warned that transfusion of one's own blood and stem cells is of no guard against risks and complications in the extraction and storage process.
Questions to note are: whether the extraction and processing procedures are legal and successfully performed, and whether injection of a preparation that bears therapeutic claims, which should be registered with the drug regulatory authority, is to be performed by a physician.
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