Taking Stem Cells to the Bank

By A. Rahman Ford, Columnist

There’s a lot of hope and hype surrounding stem cells – the latest being the idea of “banking” them -- harvesting and storing your own stem cells for future use.

A biotech start-up called Forever Labs maintains that young adults have healthier cells that can be used when they are older to fight arthritis and other age-related diseases – or perhaps even help them live longer with a booster shot of younger cells. 

“Research suggests the decline in the number and viability of bone marrow stem cells plays a role in the physical decline associated with aging. In fact, simply injecting genetically-matched young stem cells into aged mice significantly increases their lifespan,” the company claims on its website. “To have access to young, genetically-matched stem cells in the future, store yours today.

Collection of bone and bone marrow stem cells is done by a Forever Labs physician in a 15-minute out-patient procedure that costs about $2,000.  Your cells are then cryogenically frozen and stored for $250 a year.  

Another company, called LifeVault, offers a similar service at a lower price: $995 to have a blood sample drawn and shipped to a lab in New Jersey, where the blood will be processed into stem cells and stored for $95 a year. 

“We believe, and medicine is starting to believe, that this is really going to be a part of your health hygiene,” LifeVault CEO Trevor Perry told STAT News. He called the company’s test kit a form of “biological insurance.”

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“You insure a lot of things in your life, but have you taken out a policy on yourself?” Perry asked.

LifeVault and Forever Labs are indicative of a larger trend in the fast-growing stem cell industry. As hundreds of stem cell clinics have opened around the country – offering treatment for everything from back pain to neuropathy – stem cell banking has moved beyond its original use for research toward commercialization for everyday people.  

The global stem cell banking market is projected to reach $9.3 billion by 2023, according to the research firm MarketsandMarkets, with the personalized banking segment projected to account for most of that growth.

In addition to blood and bone marrow, stem cells from a variety of other sources can be banked, including dental tissue, umbilical cord blood, placental tissue, adipose fat tissue and fetal tissue.

Umbilical cord blood and adipose tissue are currently the most commonly banked sources of stem cells.  This is largely because of practical concerns such as low cost, ease of access to the tissue, and the ability to harvest large amounts of stem cells.  

Cord blood contains primarily hematopoietic stem cells, along with a mixture of other cell types that may be suitable for treating certain rare genetic diseases.  Adipose tissue contains an abundance of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), a type of stem cell with immune and regenerative capabilities.  Both types have been used to treat orthopedic, neurological and cardiovascular conditions.

Several factors impact the use of cells stored in stem cell banks.  First, the source of the stem cells must be taken into consideration.  Autologous stem cells --- which come from the patient being treated -- are easier from a medical and regulatory point of view because the risk of immune system rejection is lower, as is the risk of running afoul of FDA regulations. 

Methods of collection and processing are also critical.  In the case of cord blood, most companies use small bags to collect the blood at the time of birth. Cord tissue can also be collected, stored and used later for regenerative purposes.  

Adipose tissues are obtained through liposuction procedures or by syringe under local anesthetic.  The adipose fat must be processed and preserved within 36 hours of harvesting.  The material is washed with saline and ultimately stored in a liquid nitrogen freezer.  

While still relatively new, stem cell banking is poised for healthy growth.  That growth is buttressed by the unfortunate rise in chronic diseases among both children and adults.  Growth and competition should also result in lower costs, a factor which surely deters many interested clients from taking out that “biological insurance” policy on themselves. 

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A. Rahman Ford, PhD, is a lawyer and research professional. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and the Howard University School of Law, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Howard Law Journal. He earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rahman lives with chronic inflammation in his digestive tract and is unable to eat solid food. He has received stem cell treatment in China. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.