Blood bank seeks umbilical cords for stem cell transplants

OTTAWA — Provincial and territorial health ministers say $48 million will be spent on the development of a special blood bank for stem cell transplants.

OTTAWA — Provincial and territorial health ministers say $48 million will be spent on the development of a special blood bank for stem cell transplants.

All provinces and territories except Quebec will support the national public umbilical cord blood bank, which will be created and managed by Canadian Blood Services.

Quebec is not included in Monday’s announcement because it runs its own cord blood banking program.

The CEO of Canadian Blood Services, Dr. Graham Sher, said more than 800 Canadians are currently in need of blood stem cell transplants to help combat diseases including aplastic anaemia and leukemia.

“Umbilical cord blood is a high-quality source of stem cells and a national bank will create a long-term supply that will help reduce Canada’s dependency on internationally sourced units,” Sher said in a news release.

The new program will collect cords through donations by parents across the country and hopes to tap into the ethnically diverse population.

Stem cell transplantation can be used in the treatment of diseases including cancer, immune disorders, metabolic problems and bone marrow failure.

Dr. Mick Bahtia, a stem cell researcher at McMaster University in Hamilton, said it is important to understand that the stem cells that come from umbilical cords only make blood.

He said they shouldn’t be confused with embryonic stem cells, which can be used to generate human tissue.

“Blood stem cells allow regeneration of all the cells in our blood system, which includes immune cells,” he said. “Those cells are sometimes lacking in patients who have anemia or leukemia where immunity is low.”

Bhatia said the unique thing about blood stem cells is that they have a copying function that gives the body an ongoing “stockpile” to produce the other blood cells it needs.

“These cells that come from umbilical cord are less likely to be rejected by adults,” he said. “They have less proteins on the surface that the adult system would identify as foreign.”

The Canadian Blood Services release said about 70 per cent of patients who need the transplants have to look outside of their families for a match and have the best chance of finding it within their own ethnic group.

The organization will also conduct a fundraising campaign to raise $12.5 million of the $48-million total, to be spent over the next eight years.

The program is aiming for a target inventory of 20,000 cord blood units and will include two accredited cord blood stem cell labs and a collections network.

The project will start in Ottawa, where procedures will be developed and one of the labs will be established.

Phase 2 will see an expansion to have collections of cord blood at hospitals in Ottawa, Vancouver, Toronto and Edmonton, along with a second lab in Edmonton by 2016.

“We have long recognized the need for our own publicly funded umbilical cord blood bank,” said Maureen MacDonald, Nova Scotia’s minister of health and wellness, on behalf of the provinces and territories.

“This represents a substantial public investment today in life-saving treatments that will benefit Canadian patients and the country’s health-care system for the long term.”