Brussels, 22 Mar 2004
The European Group on Ethics (EGE) has adopted an Opinion questioning the legitimacy of commercial umbilical cord blood banks on account of the lack of scientific evidence justifying the service.
The Opinion was requested by Commission President Romano Prodi in response to promises being made to future parents about the benefits of cord blood transplantations. Parents have been told that the stored blood could be used to treat a number of diseases incurred by the child or another family member, and are invited to pay for a storage service. The EGE was asked to provide an Opinion on the scientific accuracy of these claims.
Umbilical cord blood cells have been used for transplantation for patients with blood and immune disorders since 1988. The cord blood usually comes from public or non-profit banks, which collect it from voluntary donors.
As the probability of needing a transplantation has been estimated at approximately one in 20,000 during the first 20 years of life, and that it is not yet known whether these cells are still usable after 15 years of storage, the EGE questions the legitimacy of commercial cord banks.
Cord blood is a source of stem cells, and while much research is currently being conducted into their uses, there remains as yet no clear evidence about the utility of stem cells for regenerative medicine. The EGE therefore concludes that 'the legitimacy of commercial cord blood banks for autologous use should be questioned as they sell a service which has presently no real use regarding therapeutic options.'
Some members of the EGE therefore wish to see such ventures banned, but taking the position of the majority of members, the Opinion states that 'the activities of these banks should be discouraged but that a strict ban would represent an undue restriction on the freedom of enterprise and freedom of choice of individuals/couples.'
The Opinion also recommends that, if commercial cord banks are allowed, comprehensive information should be given to consumers willing to pay for their services. Information should include the facts that 'the likelihood that the sample may be used to treat one's child is currently negligible, that the future therapeutic possibilities are of a very hypothetical nature and that up until now there is no indication that the present research will lead to specific therapeutic application of one's own cord blood cells,' states the EGE.
Looking to the future, the Opinion emphasises that if scientific knowledge should one day inform us that the use of one's own cord blood cells may be of value, storage should be taken out of the hands of commercial banks and taken over by the public sector in order to ensure fair access to healthcare services for everybody. To access the EGE Opinion, please visit: http://europa.eu.int/comm/european_group _ethics/docs/avis19_en.pdf