Australian parents are paying to freeze not just their newborn's umbilical cord blood but also cord tissue with a type of stemcell that could one day be used to regenerate bone and muscle.
The combined cord blood and tissue banking service, which costs $2125 plus a monthly storage fee of $300, has already been taken up by dozens of families since its launch a month ago.
While parents have been storing baby's cord blood for several years, the private bank Cell Care can now also collect cord tissue after the birth.
Cord blood contains haematopoietic stemcells, which can be used to treat leukaemia and autoimmune diseases, and cord tissue contains mesenchymal stemcells, which can help form bone and muscle and have the potential to form nerve cells.
Researchers are looking at possible uses of umbilical stemcells from cord blood and tissue to treat cerebral palsy, brain trauma, type 1 diabetes and acquired hearing loss.
But while the wider benefits of cord blood and tissue remain unclear, doctors are warning parents not to expect miracles.
The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists supports the collection of altruistic cord blood donations in at-risk families but says the routine collection in low-risk families through private banks has to weigh up the cost and the uncertain future benefits.
Regenerative medicine expert Graham Jenkin, from the Monash Institute of Medical Research, said the use of the stemcells was still experimental but early trials suggested it could help treat diseases such as multiple sclerosis, heart disease and Parkinson's disease.
Cell Care's medical director, Associate Professor Mark Kirkland, said it was important families were not given false promises but that many saw it as insurance against medical conditions in which stemcells might one day offer a viable treatment.
"There's a lot of work happening in new uses of cord blood and by our calculations people would spend a lot more money on fire insurance in their life than on this," he said.
Perth couple Catherine and Luke Tomlin are the first in Australia to bank their baby's cord tissue as well as the blood, saying it was expensive at $5500, which included a discounted up-front fee to store the material for 25 years.
They say the cost is worth the possibility it might one day save their first child, four-week-old Scarlett, from serious illness or disability.
"We looked into cord blood and I was told about this new use and we decided that, while it's still in the research stage and we couldn't use it right now, it's an insurance policy," Mrs Tomlin said."While Scarlett mightn't use it, it's there as an option for her, or even us or a sibling."
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