Comment: Why we need umbilical cord donors

Blood cancers are killers. According to Cancer Research UK, each year Britain diagnoses 4,000 new Myeloma cases and 2,500 Myeloma sufferers die. There are 11,000 Lymphoma diagnoses each year and 4,000 deaths. There are 7,000 Leukaemia diagnoses each year and 4,000 deaths.

By David Burrowes MP

For many people, their only hope is a blood stem cell transplant. These transplants really are a last chance for people who have no other treatment available. At any given time, around 1,600 people in Britain are waiting for a matched donor for a transplant – hoping to survive long enough to get that chance.

In 1988, for the first time, a stem cell transplant took place using cells retrieved from a donated umbilical cord and, since then, scientists have been discovering all sorts of advantages to the use of cord blood. The extent of these effects is such that a cord blood bank would only have to maintain 50,000 units to provide for the bulk of Britain’s unmet need for stem cells beyond the 770,000 registered adult donors.

A further advantage is the readiness of the stem cells retrieved from umbilical cords. They are collected, tissue-typed and frozen after the birth of the child and then are made available as soon as a patient requires them. This radically reduces the waiting time before a patient can access a transplant. Currently the average time it takes for a patient to receive their transplant is 160 days. Over those 160 days, many patients become progressively weaker, as do the chances of a successful transplant.

With such obvious advantages, it is no surprise that globally the proportion of transplants undertaken using cord blood is increasing every year. Yet where Britain once led, we are now falling behind the US, France, Germany and Spain. All of those countries now outstrip our cord blood collection, inhibiting our research capacity in this field.

There are 700,000 births each year in the UK and in almost every single instance, the umbilical cord is discarded as medical waste. The government is nudging people to voluntarily agree to donate their organs upon death. Why not give a nudge to encourage mothers to consider donating the umbilical cord?

For an investment of £50 million, spread over five years, Britain can have that 50,000 unit cord blood bank. A 50,000 unit blood bank would provide economies of scale that would reduce the cost to the NHS for every treatment as well as radically reducing the need to import stem cell units from abroad, which is a common and expensive practice today. We often talk about investing to save but in this case it would save not just £6 million but 200 lives a year.

In a parliament that will be characterised by the difficult decisions it makes, this is one decision I believe we can’t afford not to take.

David Burrowes is the Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate

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