What Are Stem Cells and How Can They Help You?

Stem cell research is discovering the many ways these cells can be used to treat illness, but what exactly are they?

A single cell is formed when the sperm and egg fuse together. That single cell then divides into a group of cells forming the early embryo. These cells are the body’s founder cells (stem cells), the original building blocks of life.

Various types of cells needed to make up the human body (skin, blood, muscle, bones, nerves, glands, etc), originate from stem cells. They are especially abundant in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies and in adults’ bone marrow.

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Why is the blood from the umbilical cord so important?

Umbilical cord blood is a rich source of haematopoietic (blood) stem cells, which has been used to treat over 50 blood-related disorders. The main use so far has been in childhood leukaemia, lymphomas, anaemias, inherited immune deficiencies and some metabolic disorders.

Which illnesses can stem cells treat?

Most of the body’s specialised cells cannot be replaced by natural processes if seriously damaged or diseased. Stem cells can be used to generate healthy and functioning specialised cells. Replacing (transplanting) diseased with healthy cells (cell therapy) is similar to the process of organ transplantation.

Which other diseases can be treated by stem cell transplants?

There is much promise for a variety of diseases including bone repair, type1 diabetes, spinal cord injuries, corneal and retinal reconstruction as well as Parkinson’s disease.  The use of these cells for heart tissue regeneration (following heart attacks or heart failure) holds particular promise for the near future.

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Who can use stem cells?

Stem cells represent a perfect match for the child whose cord blood stem cells have been stored with no risk of rejection. There is also an excellent possibility that these cells will be a suitable match for family members and/or close relatives: a sibling (1 in 4), parent (1 in 8) and grandparent (1 in 32).

Why should I collect and store my baby’s stem cells?

Consider this service if:

  • your family has a history of certain diseases, specifically haematological cancers, heart and neurological diseases.
  • there is a child in your family with a disease treatable with stem cells from a matching sibling.
  • your family is of African origin or from a mixed marriage. These racial groups are under-represented in public sperm banks.
  • you want extra peace of mind and additional assurance of your child’s health.

How do I choose a laboratory to sore the cells?

To ensures that the cells are properly process and stored, choose a laboratory that carries the appropriate accreditation.

The cord blood needs to reach the laboratory as quickly as possible to ensure optimal viability. Cord blood viability drops significantly after 48 hours. It is best to use local storage as the cells are generally stored within 24 hours.

Make sure that the laboratory carries out flow cytometry testing. This involves the counting of the cells and testing for viability. It is pointless paying for storage is the cells are not able to be used.

The cells must be stored in bags, not vials, to ensure sterility. This also guarantees the aseptic transplant of cells if needed.