WARSAW, Poland－Poland has emerged as Europe’s leader in stem cell storage, a billion-dollar global industry that is a key part of a therapy that can treat leukemias－or overly raise hopes, as some critics say.
Submerged in liquid nitrogen vapor at a temperature of -175 C, hundreds of thousands of stem cells from all over Europe bide their time in large steel barrels on the outskirts of Warsaw.
Present in blood drawn from the umbilical cord of a newborn, stem cells can help cure serious blood-related illnesses like leukemias and lymphomas, as well as genetic conditions and immune system deficits.
Polish umbilical cord blood bank PBKM/FamiCord became the industry’s leader in Europe after Swiss firm Cryo-Save went bankrupt early last year.
It is also the fifth largest in the world, according to its management, after two companies in the United States, a Chinese firm and one based in Singapore.
Since the first cord blood transplant was performed in France in 1988, the sector has significantly progressed, fueling hopes.
Mother-of-two Teresa Przeborowska has firsthand experience. At five years old, her son Michal was diagnosed with lymphoblastic leukemia and needed a bone-marrow transplant, the entrepreneur from northern Poland said.
The most compatible donor was his younger sister Magdalena. When she was born, her parents had a bag of her cord blood stored at PBKM.
More than three years later, doctors injected Magdalena’s stem cells into Michal’s bloodstream. As a result, Michal, who is nine, “is now flourishing, both intellectually and physically”, his mother said.
A cord blood transplant has become an alternative to a bone-marrow transplant when there is no donor available, with a lower risk of complications.
At the PBKM laboratory, “each container holds up to 10,000 blood bags… safe and secure, they wait to be used in the future”, its head, Krzysztof Machaj, said.
The bank holds around 440,000 samples, not including those from Cryo-Save, he said.
If the need arises, the “blood will be ready to use without the whole process of looking for a compatible donor and running blood tests,” the biologist said.
Families can pay an initial nearly 600 euros ($675) and then an annual 120 euros to have the blood taken from their newborns’ umbilical cords preserved for around 20 years.
But researchers also warn against unrealistic expectations.
Hematologist Wieslaw Jedrzejczak, a bone marrow pioneer in Poland, describes promoters of the treatment as “sellers of hope”. He compares them to makers of beauty products who “swear their cream will rejuvenate the client by 20 years”.
Research is being done on the possibility of using the stem cells to treat other diseases, notably nervous disorders. But the EuroStem-Cell scientist network warns that the research is not yet conclusive.
US hematologist Roger Mrowiec, who heads the clinical laboratory of the cord blood program Vitalant in New Jersey, said: “It’s not true, as it’s written sometimes, that we can already use them to fight Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease or diabetes.”