herald

Friday 19 July 2019

Umbilical cord stem cell ban may be lifted

Official policy banning the retrieval of cord blood stem cells at Dublin's three main maternity hospitals could be set to come to an end under new Department of Health plans.

Since August 2005, official policy at the Rotunda, the Coombe and the National Maternity Hospital has meant that requests from new mothers for medics to retrieve stem cells from the umbilical cord have fallen on deaf ears.

But after confirmation from the Department of Health that it has met with international experts over the possibility of creating a public cord blood stem cell bank for medical and research purposes, the official policy ban may now be overruled.

Since the cord blood stem cell retrieval technology became a reality, a wide-ranging international debate has raged over the use of stem cells obtained in this way.

Those in favour of the medical technique say that cord blood stem cells significantly improve the chances of using the stem cells in question to help treat future medical conditions in the newborn baby or their relatives.

Ethical

But opponents have countered by pointing to ethical concerns over the use of cord blood stem cells and have added that there is not yet enough long-term research to support the claims made about the technique.

As a result of the increased profile of the cord blood stem cell retrieval -- which has been used in over 10,000 births, mainly in the US -- a rising number of Irish mothers have asked for the procedure when giving birth.

Until recently, they have been told the matter was against hospital policy at Dublin's three maternity hospitals, with a formal policy clarification signed by the Masters of the Rotunda, the Coombe, and the National Maternity Hospital in August 2005 noting: "There is insufficient scientific research to support the procedure of taking cord blood for stem cell retrieval. The three maternity hospitals do not support requests to take core blood for stem cell retrieval."

However, speaking to the Herald today, the head of the Irish Patients Association Stephen McMahon said that the Department of Health is now considering plans to potentially bring the policy to an end.

The Department of Health has confirmed that after consulting international experts on the matter it is now considering establishing a public bank for the storage of cord blood stem cells for medicinal and research purposes.

It is continuing to hold meetings with "relevant" interest groups on the matter.

Last week the Department, the HSE, the Irish Blood Transfusion Service and the Irish Medicines Board met with international expert Professor Colin McGuckin of the Institute of Human Genetics at the UK's Newcastle University to hear the benefits of freezing cord blood cells for future use.

The international expert said that the only major hurdle to the plans was the current financial restrictions in the health service.

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