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TX: 01.02.07 - Umbilical Cord Blood Bank

PRESENTER: LIZ BARCLAY
THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.


Barclay
Sir Richard Branson is taking Virgin into the biotech market with the launch of a company to store baby's stem cells. Parents will be charged £1500 for umbilical cord blood to be put into cold storage for 20 years. If and when the science moves on the cells could be used to treat or even cure diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or cancers. Other companies already offer similar services in the UK but Sir Richard says the Virgin Health Bank is the world's first dual stem cell bank because as well as offering private storage to paying parents it will also serve the NHS, which may need cord blood for life saving treatments.

Branson
Well a number of years ago a senior director of the National Blood Centre in the UK came to see me with my charitable hat on and said that there were quite a lot of children dying unnecessarily in Britain because there was not enough cord blood stored, the NHS had limited funds and they could only store a few thousand samples. And so we offered to put in £3 million to the NHS to help and she found it difficult getting the NHS to accept private money. And so what we've decided to do was to set up a company that can get out there and increase the number of samples dramatically and then the profits that we make from that company they go back to the Virgin group will then be put into a charitable foundation to help particularly the ethnic groups who have difficulty finding cord blood. It'll go to the Anthony Nolan Trust who are setting up another foundation.

Barclay
And for the private paying parents Sir Richard says they're betting on a medical breakthrough in the future.

Branson
We will take a parent's individual cord blood and we will divide in two, so half of it will go into a national blood centre that anybody can get access to, the other half will be put aside for the child, so that if there are breakthrough's in the future such as breakthrough's to do with the heart or diabetes or the like, where they can have access to their own cord blood, it is there stored for them.

Barclay
Sir Richard Branson. Our disability reporter Carolyn Atkinson has been speaking to three of the world's most eminent stem cell experts about Richard Branson's new venture and to assess where we're at with the science - can it ever be advanced enough to make this biological insurance scheme worthwhile? The three are Professor Geoffrey Raisman from the Institute of Neurology in London who's working on spinal cord injury; Dr Siddharthan Chandran from Cambridge University's Brain Repair Centre who's involved in MS research and first, speaking on the phone from the Singapore Stem Cell Forum taking place today in Singapore, the head of the UK's Medical Research Council, the MRC, Professor Colin Blakemore.

Blakemore
I would guess that we're almost at the point where we can say that it is worthwhile but worth of course depends on cost and I'm sure that Sir Richard, the excellent entrepreneur that he is, will know very well that that's a major factor. But I would say that as long as costs are reasonable, it is not a stupid investment on the part of parents.

Atkinson
Geoffrey Raisman, you're obviously involved in stem cell research, do you think this is something that is a sensible move for people who perhaps have the money?

Raisman
Yes, I don't think we can know that these cells will be useful but there's no harm in them being retained and future knowledge may show us how they'll be used. But I think it's a long shot and it's very likely that other stem cells will come along in the future.

Atkinson
And Siddharthan Chandran, is it, from a scientific point of view, feasible that these can be stored for quite some length of time and still be useful at the end of that period of time?

Chandran
I think that's a very fair question. In essence this is a form of biological insurance, which over time may well prove to be a sound investment but I think it raises two issues - it needs to be available ultimately for all patients, that is what the NHS aims to deliver, and questions as to whether it will be useful many years down the line remain to be proven and we really don't know. But I think in anticipation of that possibility it's a reasonable thing to embark upon.

Atkinson
Well all of this depends on the work that's going on in laboratories certainly around the UK which is leading stem cell research, Geoffrey Raisman where is the science at, at the moment, because perhaps looking at Richard Branson there people could be led to believe that it's just around the corner, are the public realistic in their perception of where we're at?

Raisman
I'm afraid the public are getting from the media the message that stem cells are just round the corner and they're going to cure anything. This heightened perception is going to lead to a great deal of disappointment. There are two disadvantages of over selling the field. One is that people will become disappointed and that in the end will discredit the field, the bubble will burst. And the second is that resources will be diverted into the field and if the expectations are unrealistic those resources for research may have been better used somewhere else to achieve something that can be achieved.

Atkinson
Your work that you've been doing over the last - best part of three decades, sort of proves the point that there's no quick fix to any of this, can you describe where you're at after that period of research?

Raisman
Well we're working on a very specific condition which is damage when nerves are pulled out of the spinal cord in motor accidents. There are two types of tissues in the body - ones that repair themselves and ones that don't - and the brain and spinal cord are spectacularly ones that don't repair themselves. And so we have selected adult stem cells from another part of the body and transplanted them into the spinal cord, experimentally so far, and shown that you can get repair.

Atkinson
Because you're taking the stem cells from the nasal lining aren't you.

Raisman
These are stem cells that we take from the nasal lining because that is the only part of our nervous system which throughout life continually replaces itself. And we're hoping this year to be transplanting cells from the patient back into these areas that don't repair.

Atkinson
Those people are not - they haven't had their accidents yet, they're still scooting around not realising that they could be suddenly finding themselves in part of a human trial.

Raisman
One part of the design of this trial is to carry out the therapy as soon as possible after the injury and that means that the people who we will be looking at are not yet injured. Unfortunately there are people enduring these damaging accidents all the time and there's an enormous number coming in to various hospitals.

Atkinson
And do you think there's a danger, even with what you're doing, that there's going to be again increased sort of public expectation that you're going to sort of tackle the Christopher Reeve factor, as it were, you're going to get people who are wheelchair users sort of running around, that people are misunderstanding what you're trying to do?

Raisman
Absolutely, I get letters everyday asking if we're going to cure this or that major condition. This perception is not helped by the press, which is putting out these cells as a miracle cure whereas it's a very slow step-by-step scientific advance.

Atkinson
Siddharthan, we've heard a lot recently about commercial companies charging people to have stem cell treatments, which may or may not work, depending on who you talk to, do you think that that type of approach is threatening what you might call the traditional academics and the university teams like yourselves in terms of where your work will end up because of what they're doing commercially?

Chandran
I have concerns for two reasons. One, you've just alluded to but I think a more fundamental concern is that this is simply wrong and unfair to patients and there is, in a sense, a profiteering of patients fears and vulnerabilities. I think we must recognise that these treatments are not really treatments, they're investigational at best and to present it as treatments is simply wrong. These are, after all, unregulated, unproven and unsafe, and it is for that reason they need to be brought within the arena of formal experimental trials.

Atkinson
We had the example a few years ago of gene therapy where everyone got very excited and this was the answer to a lot of things, if there were a death in the commercial sector would that put paid to a lot of work that you're all doing in laboratories?

Chandran
Without doubt. I mean if there is unregulated activity beyond our jurisdiction inevitably and almost certainly there will be a disaster, that disaster will be captured by the media appropriately and that will have very real implications for other perhaps I could say more cautious and correct researchers who are genuinely trying to build long term sustainable solutions. Speaking both as a scientist and as a clinician my view would be that I think there are very real grounds for optimism and I suspect over time the greatest dividend from this stem cell revolution, which is occurring, is less to do with the generation of cells for cell transplantation, though that will be welcome and valuable, but really I think what stem cells will do is that they crucially will be used to discover drugs and it's those drugs will have huge impact in manipulating our own endogenous or resident stem cells. And that way you really will have tailored therapies.

Atkinson
What timescale, realistically, are we on here?

Blakemore
Scientists when challenged with this sort of question are very fond of 10 years, ask anybody when their latest breakthrough is going to be transformed into clinical benefit they tend to say 10 years. I think that within that 10 years we will be seeing some of these methods coming into clinical practice, they almost certainly will be the ones that involve adult stem cells, probably mainly bone marrow, possible the sort of cells that Geoff's dealing with in his work from the nasal epithelium.

Raisman
I think of it - our work - as opening a door, a door which is closed at the moment. If we can open the door we have to go through it. I don't think we should think of an instant cure for anything, we're taking the first tentative steps, they look promising. And unless trials are carried out that convince the medical profession to carry something out we're going to have the present situation where patients go off to some country, I won't name any, to one particular genius who's carrying out a unique operation - it shouldn't be like that. That unique genius should present data that convince all his colleagues, so that the benefits can be carried out everywhere.

Chandran
Just to stretch the metaphor - I think we are actually already pushing at an open door. I think 10 years is a reasonable timeframe to contemplate very genuine clinical interventions.

Barclay
Dr Siddharthan Chandran from Cambridge University; Professor Geoffrey Raisman from the Institute of Neurology and Professor Colin Blakemore, head of the Medical Research Council.

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