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Virgin invests in stem cells

February 1, 2007 By Matt Brown This article courtesy of Nature News.

Multifaceted company gets into healthcare for the future.

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Richard Branson, more famous for investing in planes, trains and music through Virgin Group, today announced his first foray into healthcare.

Virgin Health Bank, a collaboration with London-based investment company Merlin Biosciences, will store blood stem cells from umbilical cord tissue for the treatment of blood diseases. In a departure from existing commercial cord stem-cell banks, the sample from a subscriber's newborn baby will be split in two — with half available to the public and the other retained for the child.

Cord blood stem cells are increasingly used for the treatment of leukaemia and other blood diseases. The cells can be transfused into a patient's bloodstream, from where they migrate to the bone marrow and develop into blood cells, replacing the patient's cancerous cells. Unlike embryonic stem cells, they are readily obtainable and free from ethical controversy.

The main issue is one of quantity. Although the practice of collecting cord blood is increasing in countries such as Japan and the United States, obtaining cells to match the tissue type of a given individual is still a problem, particularly for those of an ethnic minority.

That's where Virgin Health Bank comes in. The new company, based in the UK, aims to increase the number and diversity of cord cell tissue types available.

Virgin births

This is completely uncharted territory - we can't say whether samples will or will not be useful.
Colin McGuckin
University of Newcastle Upon Tyne
For parents who subscribe, for a flat fee of £1,500, it will work like this. Within minutes of the birth of their baby, blood will be drawn from the placenta or umbilical cord by trained personnel. Virgin Health Bank will transport it to storage facilities, determine the tissue type and check for abnormalities. The blood will then be prepared for 'dual banking'. One half will be stored in a public bank and may be used for a transplant in anyone with the correct tissue type; the other half will be set aside in a private bank for the exclusive use of the child, should they require access to their own stem cells at a later date.

For now, Virgin Health Bank says it will focus on treating people with blood disorders, using proven and well regulated methodologies. But there is a possibility that such banks could be expanded for other uses in future.

It is thought that some stem cells — perhaps including those extracted from the placenta — may be developmentally flexible enough to be persuaded to grow into many different types of cells, ultimately perhaps building new tissues or organs for those who need replacements. Stem-cell technology is still a long way from being able to replace complex tissues, but the bank might one day provide a repair kit for diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes.

Branson promises that any profits from his side of the venture will be donated to stem-cell research.

Deep freeze

There is, however, an issue regarding how long the cells can be stored — so far, the record for a successful transplant is eleven years after initial freezing in liquid nitrogen. Colin McGuckin, Professor of Regenerative Medicine at Newcastle University in the UK, notes that this may be a barrier to long-term use. "This is completely uncharted territory — we can't say whether samples will or will not be useful."

Chris Mason, from the Advanced Centre for Biochemical Engineering, University College London, is upbeat about the announcement. "This is win-win situation; it's good for patients and good for helping to keep the UK at the forefront of stem-cell research," he says.

His endorsement is echoed by bodies such as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecology, but with a note of caution about procedure. "Our prime concern remains the process of collection of the cord blood and the health of mother and baby," says Peter Braude, chair of the college's scientific advisory committee. "It is imperative that the collection should not in any way compromise the attention of the carers to the delivery."


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