Health & Fitness Medical & Dental

Banking stem cells and what that actually means

Potentially life-saving stem cells are thrown away every day, but the practice of cord-blood collection is still relatively new to Hong Kong, and the policies and practices differ depending on where you give birth. Here, Jennifer Heathfield-Lee, founder of Athena Life, helps take some of the guesswork out of it.


Stem cells explained

Cord blood is collected after birth from the cord tissue, which is usually disposed of as medical waste. It’s a simple, quick procedure that most private OBGYNs/midwives/nurses are very adept at. Only a small amount of blood is required as the concentration of stem cells is so high in cord blood.

There have been many successful stem cell transplants since the 1950s, and since 1988 thousands of successful transplants have occurred using stem cells from cord blood. There is continuing research on stem cells and an ever-growing list of future applications, with new therapies largely focusing on regenerative medicine.


Stem cells explained
Stem cells explained


Public versus private

Having previously worked at a private cord blood bank before starting her own company for cord blood banking and stem cell storage, Jennifer is quite passionate when it comes to the benefits of stem cells, and saving them for future use is something that she believes everyone should be able to do.

In Hong Kong there are two options for cord blood banking: you can donate your cord blood to the public bank run by the Hong Kong Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service, or bank it through a private company. But there’s a catch. Jennifer says, “Unfortunately, the infrastructure here creates a two-tier environment where you are only able to donate to the public cord blood bank if you’re giving birth in a public hospital; but, as with any form of blood donation, once it has been given to the public bank there is no way to retrieve it for your family’s own use if required at a later date. If you’re giving birth at a private hospital, you’re able to store your cord blood privately. We want to support women to give birth where they want but nevertheless have the kind of birth they want – including with respect to cord blood donation or storage – so we’re working hard to try to effect change in this area.”


Making an informed decision

Once you’ve decided to go ahead and store your cord blood privately, you have a number of options. But where do you get unbiased and accurate information about the process? Jennifer explains, “There are very few companies that give a balanced view on the benefits of cord blood banking – the ‘whole’ story, if you like – and nearly all of them use discounts with signing deadlines to pressure people to signing sooner rather than later. At Athena Life, we feel it is much more important that people make a well-informed decision in their own time. It’s only too late to make a decision after you’ve actually given birth. The most important thing is that people have the time to take onboard all the important information necessary to help them properly evaluate all the options out there.”


Weighing up the options

When considering a private cord blood bank there are a number of questions you should ask:

* Is the bank independently regulated by a government organisation or does it simply have industry (i.e., self-endorsed) certification?

* Where is the bank/laboratory based?

* Do they use their own laboratories or third-party facilities?

* What do the fees include? What fees may apply later?

* What services are provided after the initial collection/storage?


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You’ll also find lots of tips and advice on health care in Hong Kong over on our Health and Medical page.