Blood worth banking on, say parents

Vicki Georgakopolous with her nine-month-old daughter, Panayiota.
Vicki Georgakopolous with her nine-month-old daughter, Panayiota. 

It's an insurance policy she hopes she'll never have to cash in. Vicki Georgakopoulos believes the decision to store her baby's umbilical cord blood could one day save her daughter's life.

Every year until nine-month-old Panayiota turns 18, her parents will pay a private company $150 to store a frozen blood sample rich in stem cells that scientists say have the potential to fight a range of diseases.

With an additional $3000 upfront fee, it's not cheap. But the 37-year-old Preston mother and her husband believe it's worth every cent.

''We've got leukaemia and MS [multiple sclerosis] in my family, so this is something I wanted to do as a precaution,'' Mrs Georgakopoulos said. ''Who's to say that my child is not going to develop medical problems in the future?

''I spend money on silly things, possessions, and I thought, well, if I can spend money on a plasma and brand new shoes I can spend $3000 on my child's health.''

Many public hospitals are refusing to allow the practice, citing a lack of scientific evidence of the blood's therapeutic benefits.

Mrs Georgakopoulos is among a growing number of parents who want to store their newborn's cord blood as a safeguard for the future. Scientists believe that as stem cell technology advances, it could be used to treat a range of conditions such as diabetes and cerebral palsy, as well as spinal injuries.

The cells have already proven to be effective as a substitute for bone marrow transplants in children and for treating blood disorders such as lymphoma and leukaemia.

But while private hospitals allow staff from private blood banks to harvest cord blood during deliveries, many public hospitals are refusing to allow the practice, citing a lack of scientific evidence of the blood's therapeutic benefits.

Mark Kirkland, medical director of Biocell Cord Blood Banking, said that since private banks were established about seven years ago, Victorian public hospitals had denied more than 500 mothers the right to store their child's cord blood.


The Sunday Age has learned that at least one couple is considering legal action against a Melbourne hospital after their child developed a medical condition they believe could ultimately be cured had they been allowed to store cord blood.

The Royal Women's Hospital and the public maternity ward at the Mercy will collect cord blood without charge if women wish to donate to the Bone Marrow Donor Institute Cord Blood Bank, a public bank that can be accessed by anyone and is used to match donors with recipients all over the world.

But the bank is not licensed to release a child's own donated cells because many experts believe the least successful form of transplant is from the patient's own cord blood or bone marrow, and that there is little evidence they can be used to treat genetic diseases.

However, Associate Professor Kirkland said technology was advancing rapidly and if public hospitals continued to deny parents the right to store samples, litigation was inevitable. ''This is a birthing choice that mothers ought to be able to make,'' he said.

The president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Ted Weaver, said the potential for cord blood to be used for conditions such as diabetes and cystic fibrosis was promising, but until there was more conclusive evidence the public health system should not foot the bill for storage.

''It's an incredibly important research area, but equally you've got to be careful that you don't sell people a dream in the sense that they fork out all this dough for collecting their blood, storing their blood and then find that the chances of them using it would be maybe one in 10,000 or less,'' Dr Weaver said.

Professor Kirkland conceded that just one sample from the estimated 15,000 stored in Australian private blood banks had been used to treat a patient to date.

However, he said that based on figures from the US, where the practice is better established, about one in every 2500 samples was being used therapeutically.

Mrs Georgakopoulos, who gave birth at the Mercy Hospital for Women, was initially told she would have to become a paying private patient if she wanted to have cord blood collected during the birth. But after much persistence, hospital bosses changed their mind.

''I know it's not a guarantee that stem cells might fix that problem, but, as a right, if private patients can do it why can't people in the public system?'' Mrs Georgakopoulos said.

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