Private cord blood banking in the NHS?

By Philippa Brice

31 January 2012


The umbilical cord blood banking company, Virgin Health Bank, has announced a new partnership with Cambridge University Hospitals (CUH) NHS Trust, the first such deal between a private cord blood bank and an NHS hospital in the UK.

Virgin will be able to market their stem cell banking services to patients at the Cambridge maternity hospital. Women may purchase these services privately (exclusive personal storage of the cord blood) for £1695, or for £1195 donate the majority to the Virgin Health Bank's public resource, retaining a small sample for private use that is insufficient for transplantation; however, it is said to be possible that future technologies may allow this sample to be utilised as a treatment.

In return for this patient access, CUH will provide fee-based laboratory services to Virgin, and receive special access to stem cells in the public cord blood resource for research. CUH Medical Director Dr Jag Ahluwalia said: “This collaboration builds on our reputation as a leading centre for stem cell research, and is a wonderful opportunity to increase the access which patients have to potentially life-saving stem cell therapy”.

Comment: This looks to be a positive partnership in terms of generating revenue and enlarging the pool of cord blood stem cells available for research and potentially NHS transplantation. However, it is also an effective NHS approval for direct marketing of private stem cell banking services to women receiving antenatal care; the company emphasises that it aims to ‘empower’ rather than ‘pressure’ women, but concerns already raised about direct marketing to women within the NHS may equally apply here.

As of mid-2011, the Royal Colleges of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and Midwives (RCM) officially support the practice of ‘medically directed and altruistic cord blood collection for public banking’ via the NHS Cord Blood Bank or Anthony Nolan Trust (which is free), but not private cord blood collection and banking. Is the altruistic research imperative sufficient to outweigh concerns about inappropriate marketing, promotion of services of limited (likely) medical benefit, and distraction of medical attention from mother and baby during delivery?

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