Erna West and daughter Gizelle, who was diagnosed with Fanconi anaemia aged 9. Her life was saved by a blood marrow transplant from her mother. Picture: SUPPLIED
Erna West and daughter Gizelle, who was diagnosed with Fanconi anaemia aged 9. Her life was saved by a blood marrow transplant from her mother. Picture: SUPPLIED
Erna West and daughter Gizelle, who was diagnosed with Fanconi anaemia aged 9. Her life was saved by a blood marrow transplant from her mother. Picture: SUPPLIED
Erna West and daughter Gizelle, who was diagnosed with Fanconi anaemia aged 9. Her life was saved by a blood marrow transplant from her mother. Picture: SUPPLIED
Erna West and daughter Gizelle, who was diagnosed with Fanconi anaemia aged 9. Her life was saved by a blood marrow transplant from her mother. Picture: SUPPLIED
Erna West and daughter Gizelle, who was diagnosed with Fanconi anaemia aged 9. Her life was saved by a blood marrow transplant from her mother. Picture: SUPPLIED
Just 21 years ago, Erna West faced every parents’ worst nightmare. Her then 9-year-old daughter Gizelle was diagnosed with the life-threatening and limiting disease Fanconi anaemia. The hereditary and rare disease leads to bone marrow failure, meaning an inability to produce blood cells.

“The one thing I still remember is us driving in our car and my daughter asking me, ‘Mommy, am I going to die?’” West recounted.

Now an ardent advocate for stem cell therapy and storage, West, a product specialist for CryoSave, credits stem cells with saving her daughter’s life.

Her daughter needed a bone marrow transplant, which involved the transplanting of stem cells.

She found she was an exact donor match for her daughter’s bone marrow transplant - a one-in-a-million occurrence.

“When you’re faced with a situation such as that as a parent, you want and are willing to do anything to save your child’s life I just want parents to understand what stem cells can do.”

Fast forward 21 years and stem cells are revolutionising health care and through modern technology, parents can store their newborn baby’s umbilical cord stem cells in case of any future illnesses or health care needs.

Stem cells are present in the human body throughout life, constantly repairing tissue damaged by normal activity, the environment and other extraneous factors. They can replicate or regenerate themselves and have the ability to differentiate into any kind of specialised cell in the body.

Africa is the only continent without a public stem cell bank - private stem cell storage banks are in increasing demand as research and medical innovation has shown that many blood cancers, blood disorders, autoimmune diseases and immunodeficiencies are treatable with cord blood.

Umbilical cord blood and stem cell banking is still a relatively novel concept in South Africa.

However, new parents are increasingly opting to have their newborn babies’ stem cells extracted from their umbilical cords.

According to CryoSave - which stores 7 800 client stem cell samples - the process is simpler and quicker than one might expect.

Once the baby is born, the umbilical cord is clamped and cut as per normal in any birth. It is only after this that the blood and tissue are collected from the cord - which is usually discarded as medical waste after the birth.

A baby’s umbilical cord stem cells are a 100% perfect match and biological parents’ stem cells will be at least a half-match.

There is a 25% probability of matching siblings and, unlike bone marrow transplants, one doesn’t have to have a perfect match in transplants when making use of cord blood stem cells.

Today, umbilical cord blood stem cells are used in more than one-third of all blood stem cell transplants in the world.

Explaining the process behind the storage of umbilical cord cells at their labs, Christiene Botha, a lab quality manager said: “The blood we receive goes through a rigorous sterilising, processing and freezing process.”

The samples are then stored in liquid nitrogen tanks at a temperature of -196ºC.

But time is of the essence in this process.

The umbilical cord blood sample needs to reach the lab within 48 hours - and the cut off is at 64 hours - as blood cells start dying after 72 hours.

Depending on what product one uses to store the cells, storage rates can be from R250 to R300 a month.

“The fact that we don’t have a public national bank puts us at a disadvantage because it is the ideal. So there aren’t many choices for parents out there - but families can look after themselves through this type of storage.

"My daughter is 30-years-old, is married and lives a full life because of stem cells,” West concluded.