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Umbilical Cord Blood (Donation)

Volume 470: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2008

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to promote the donation of cord blood from women after giving birth; and for connected purposes.

Given that I have six children, I should be declaring an interest in the subject of the Bill. My constituency is adjacent to Barnet general hospital, one of only four NHS hospitals that collect umbilical cord blood. That would seem to be a good reason for developing an interest, but we have not donated umbilical cord blood despite six opportunities to do so at a nearby hospital. Like most parents throughout the United Kingdom, we were not informed of the value of cord blood or the possibility of collection. Until recently I did not consider the umbilical cord, once clamped after birth, as anything more than a waste product. The first purpose of the Bill, and of my speech, is to encourage parents and the wider public to be more informed about the value and benefits of umbilical cord blood.

Hon. Members may be ignorant, as I was, of the nature of cord blood. The baby’s blood in the cord contains different types of cell, including stem cells. Cord blood has been used for the last 20 years for blood transplantation. It has treated patients with leukaemia, sickle-cell diseases, immune deficiencies and other diseases: there have been 85 treatments to date.

There are possible treatments in the pipeline beyond blood therapy. Trials for the use of cord blood in brain injury in children are under way and cord blood is being developed for many other therapies, including diabetes and liver therapy. Treatment for leukaemia highlights the particular value of cord blood transplants, which can be used as an alternative to bone marrow transplants. Such cord blood transplants are less complicated, with fewer delays, and more readily available, as they can be stored and frozen for many years. Significantly, it is easier to find a match from stem cells than from bone marrow.

Umbilical cord blood collection leads to increased access to transplantation, particularly for patients from ethnic minorities. The reality is that umbilical cord blood, which is thrown away routinely after birth, has a life-saving value. Becki Josiah contacted me after her daughter Billie died from leukaemia in April 2006. She was ill for two years and awaiting a bone marrow transplant. A major difficulty for the Josiah family was their daughter’s mixed-race background. As Mrs. Josiah said to me,

“Mixed-race individuals have a much lower chance of receiving a match in bone marrow donations and cord blood donation gives them another vital chance at a cure.”

The Bill attempts to increase the chances of a cure for families such as the Josiah’s.

Mrs. Josiah has also highlighted the limitations on donation. She recently had another baby and wanted to donate her newborn baby’s cord blood to help cure a child with leukaemia, like her daughter. However, her family does not live near one of the four NHS hospitals with facilities to accept her donation. As she said, it was not possible for her blood to

“go to another family to help spare them the agony of losing someone they love.”

Successful treatment is possible for one’s own blood, a sibling’s or that of an unrelated patient. We must find a way of enabling more patients to access this source of treatment, and my Bill takes some steps in that direction.

My interest in umbilical cord blood arose when as a member of the Joint Committee I scrutinised the draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill. Our remit was focused on the Government’s approach, which is to ensure that the UK is at the forefront of scientific development in embryonic stem cell research. A majority of public money supports embryonic research compared with other stem cell sources. The House will no doubt have the opportunity soon, with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, to debate whether it is wise to move into the realms of interspecies research to deal with the limited number of embryonic stem cell lines.

As well as the political hurdles, there are ethical and biological hurdles in the way of the Government marching us up to the top of the hill of embryonic research. It is therefore timely to consider an alternative hill of stem cell research. The terrain is the same: wanting the UK to be at the forefront of bringing stem cell therapies and regenerative medicine to the clinic in order to relieve suffering and reduce health care costs. With the help of this Bill, the focus would be on core blood stem cell therapy, which already results in treatment of diseases. Research in the field holds out an exciting future; notably Professor Colin McGuckin has led a team in Newcastle to be the first in the world to characterise human embryonic stem cells from umbilical cord blood.

The question that the Bill raises is why only 150 cord blood transplants out of 8,000 worldwide have been carried out in the UK. Why are we routinely disregarding the proven life-saving value of umbilical cord blood but legislating and investing predominantly in the unproven and ethically challenging route of embryonic research? Given that we will in the foreseeable future depend on non-embryonic stem cell therapies, why are we putting literally most of our eggs in one basket?

There are supporters of the Bill who are not necessarily opposed to embryo research but recognise the value of umbilical cord blood and its availability. The Bill would make it a universal requirement for doctors to inform pregnant women of the benefits of collection and storage of cord blood. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists advises that if there is a known genetic condition in a family—already a child with leukaemia or a blood-related disorder—a clinician may recommend that parents bank their babies’ cord blood. My Bill would presume that collection takes place in such circumstances unless parents opt out or medical reasons prevent it. If nothing is done in this area, some private banks will simply exploit families’ fears.

The practical problem facing any future extension of donation of cord blood is the limited number of NHS maternity units equipped for collection and storage in a safe environment. The NHS cord blood bank at Edgware restricts its collections to Barnet general, Northwick Park, Luton and Dunstable and Watford hospitals, which are the only dedicated units in England. The collection sites do not form a planned approach to collection of cord blood and we are currently missing—or, more to the point, wasting—the opportunity presented by umbilical cord blood.

The Bill seeks to promote the collection of cord blood from specific shortage groups, particularly ethnic minority groups and mixed-race families. The UK Thalassaemia Society, which has its base in Southgate in my constituency, recognises that point in its support of my Bill, as does the Leukaemia Society in the United Kingdom. They have emphasised to me the difficulties for leukaemia patients of Cypriot origin in finding appropriate bone marrow matches and support the proposed extension of cord blood donation.

The purposes of the Bill are not wholly dependent on legislation. The Anthony Nolan Trust, which also supports the Bill’s aim to promote the benefits of cord blood collection, is setting up the first charitable cord blood bank in the UK and plans to promote opportunities for more cord donation. The hope is that six maternity units will facilitate collection. The aim is to harvest 12,500 cords within five years for clinical and research use.

The Bill seeks to raise our sights higher, given the value now of cord blood’s treating 85 different diseases. It also seeks to rebalance the debate on stem cell therapy, which can often be more led by media proxy and hype than the ability realistically to treat patients. The Bill supports an ethical and convenient alternative to embryonic sources of stem cells. It also supports parents who are waiting desperately for treatment for their children with diseases such as leukaemia.

I leave the last words to Becki Josiah. She says:

“I find it obscene that I could go into Selfridges tomorrow and buy a jar of face cream containing placenta but I cannot find anyone willing to collect and store the precious resource that is cord blood”,

and asks whether anything can be done to help her.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Burrowes, Geraldine Smith, Simon Hughes, Robert Key, Mr. Julian Brazier, Mr. Stephen Crabb, Mr. Andrew Dismore, Bob Spink, Michael Fabricant, Jim Dobbin, Andrew Selous and Mrs. Nadine Dorries.

Umbilical Cord Blood (Donation)

Mr. David Burrowes accordingly presented a Bill to promote the donation of cord blood from women after giving birth; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed [Bill 50].