Stem cell giant opens new new lab

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The storage area beneath a glass floor at Cryo-Save. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Pretoria - A state-of-the-art, multimillion-rand laboratory, the largest stem cell storage facility in Africa, has opened its doors in Tshwane.

It is set to benefit not only South Africans in the treatment and cure of debilitating illnesses, but will offer services to other countries on the continent.

Stem cells have been described as the building blocks of the body, the master cells from which all other cells, tissues, organs and bone are created.

These cells, found in the blood, also have the ability to create the immune system, and modern medicine has found that while these important cells can be found in substances such as bone marrow and fat tissue, the youngest, most flexible stem cells in the body come from the umbilical cord.

Bone marrow stem cells have been used for transplants and transfusions in the treatment of blood-related diseases for many years. More recently, such treatment has used umbilical cord blood.

Research has found that cord blood contains powerful stem cells which have been used to regenerate healthy blood and immune systems, and can be used to treat no fewer than 70 blood and blood-related diseases, which include cancers and immune system disorders.

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Cryo-Saves new cryogenic laboratory in Pretoria. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

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The discovery of this alternative use of umbilical cord blood was made about 25 years ago, said stem cell expert Dr Cherie Daly.

She said more than 25 000 cord blood transplants had been done to date, the first one in France in 1988, where a sick boy was treated with stem cells from his baby sister’s umbilical cord.

“Umbilical stem cells are like family medical insurance, because they are stored for as long as necessary to benefit family members when the need arises,” Daly said at the launch of Cryo-Save Laboratories in Pretoria.

The laboratory will also offer services to other countries on the continent, such as Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Kenya. It already stores stem cells from Uganda, Tanzania and Angola.

The facility is part of the Cryo-Save Group, which claims to be Europe and Africa’s largest private human stem cell bank, and says it has five international labs holding various accreditations.

Before the opening of the Pretoria laboratory, Cyro-Save sent stem cells for storage at any one of its other processing and storage facilities in Belgium, Germany, Dubai and India.

The facility stores stem cells privately for families.

The samples belong to the families entirely, and they are put through a process that seperates stem cells from blood products before being stored.

Umbilical cord blood stem transplants have been found to be less prone to rejection than those from other sources. This is possibly because the cells have not yet developed the features that can be recognised and attacked by the recipient’s immune system.

It has also been found that because umbilical cord blood lacks well-developed immune cells, there is less chance that the transplanted cells will attack the recipient’s body.

In the 10 years Cryo-Save hasdbeen in South Africa it had experienced growth in the number of clients, said South African branch managing director Louis Rehrl. He admitted though, that there were efforts to gain more.

One key objective, he said, was to raise awareness and opportunities for young parents. To reach them, the company targeted key areas visited by pregnant women, such as hospital pre-birth classes and obstetricians’ and gynaeocologists’ rooms.

“We also write informative articles and publish them in mother and baby magazines,” Rehrl said.

Plans to expand the marketing base are being considered, and the company has formed partnerships with relevant stakeholders and used mediums such as TV and radio.

It already had a network of doctors trained in how to collect cord blood. Mothers-to-be took their collection kits and documentation with them into the labour room, where trained staff started the collection process as soon as they could after the birth.

The process did not interfere with the birth process, said Daly, who added: “The placenta has a very high concentration of blood; the blood is collected before the placenta is separated, while it is still pulsating.”

The blood is taken to the facility, where it is taken through steps that include the separation of the blood and blood tissues, sterilisation of containers and bar-coding.

The stem cells are eventually frozen using a technique that ensures they are alive and viable when eventually defro+cess takes between four and five hours, and they are eventually left in a storage vessel filled with liquid nitrogen, at –196ºC.

Machines are used to process the blood in order to remove the possibility of human error, and to ensure there is no contamination.

The company has spent R10 million in the past year on expansion: “This is to ensure that we provide high quality service in a world class environment,” Rehrl said. He explained that they had met and exceeded the prescribed levels of quality, setting a benchmark in their field.

Among the challenges faced by the company in convincing families to store umbilical cord blood was cultural objections, said Rehrl.

“It is a huge challenge and there is a lot of resistance on cultural grounds, especially because it is such a highly technical process.”

Through education the word would spread, he said, and the general population would get to understand the opportunities available to them for the treatment of debilitating diseases. - Pretoria News


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