Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson has launched a dual private and public blood bank of umbilical cord blood as a source of stem cells to help treat donors or their families and other people who might need it.

Sir Richard said in a BBC radio interview earlier today that he got the idea for the project a number of years ago when he was visited by a senior director of the National Blood Centre asking for his support in a charitable role because children were dying through lack of umbilical cord blood.

Initially Sir Richard offered 3 million pounds to the National Health Service to help them increase their storage capacity for umbilical cord blood, but this was not something the NHS was comfortable with, accepting funds from private sources. So Sir Richard decided to set up a company to do the job.

On the BBC Radio 4 programme Sir Richard outlined his plan to set up a commercial enterprise within the Virgin group of companies to store and sell cord blood. He said that the profits of the company would go to a charity to be set up to help groups, particularly ethnic minorities, who have difficulty sourcing cord blood because there are not enough samples that match them.

Other companies are already offering cord blood storage on a commercial basis, and thousands of UK couples have used them. The cost of storing a batch of cord blood is in the range of 1,500 pounds.

The Virgin scheme however would be unique because "we will take an individual's cord blood and we will divide it in two," said Sir Richard, and added that "part of it will go into a national blood centre that anybody can get access to. And the other half will be put aside for the child."

Cord blood, which is "harvested" just after the baby is born, is a rich source of stem cells which can be used to treat serious and life threatening diseases such as leukaemia.

Some experts are predicting that storage of stem cells in this way could one day help treat the donor, or close matched patients, for degenerative diseases that they might suffer from much later in their lives such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Some people are saying that while the idea of collecting cord blood is a worthwhile one and no-one wants to deny a person, especially a child, the opportunity for life saving treatment, one also needs to take into account the practicalities of how to collect cord blood without interfering unduly with the process of labour and giving birth.

Cord blood is collected in two ways. One way is while the placenta is still in the uterus just after the baby has been delivered (in-utero) and the other way is just after the placenta has been delivered (ex-utero) where it is placed in a special cradle with the umbilical cord hanging down to make it easy to withdraw the 75 centilitres or so of blood that is necessary for a viable sample.

The National Health Service currently takes about 2,000 donations a year from mothers who want to donate cord blood to help others.

Once treated as a waste product of birth, cord blood is now considered an important resource, and numbers of private and and public sector cord blood banks have been increasing since the late 1990s, both in the UK and the US.

Cord blood transplants have successfully treated a number of blood and immune system diseases, for instance leukaemia and Fanconi's anaemia, a rare genetic disease associated with a range of bone growth disorders including short stature, tumours and bone marrow failure.

Virgin Health Bank

More information on Stem Cells (NIH, US)

American Association of Blood Banks

: Catharine Paddock
Writer: blog

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