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Stem Cell Storage Popularity at All Time High in Asia

NST Online, November 25, 2007

Some 25,000 Malaysians have registered to have their stem cells stored 5 years after it was introduced to the country.  Even though research on the potential benefits of stem cells continues, more people are lining up to store their cells despite the recent introduction of the concept.

With the hope that research in stem cells will one day break new frontiers and cure them from illnesses or keep them young forever, more people are embracing the technology, which was initially met with public resistance.

Adults are paying RM15,000 and up for the service, while parents with newborns and spending RM2,500 to have their newborn's stem cells banked.

More parents are opting to store their children's stem cells said Michael Lim, the finance director of StemLife, which stores stem cells for both adults and babies.

"The parents hope that the stored stem cells will one day help their child to fight cancer or repair their organs without having to wait for donor organs," he said.

Stem cells can repair and replace damaged tissues in the body.  They can also treat numerous diseases, such as cancer, autism, heart disease, and Alzheimer's.  Stem cells are harvested from the umbilical cord in newborn babies.  The preservation of stem cells is referred to as stem cell banking.

After being diagnosed with diabetes or cancer, adults would seek out stem cell storage services says Lim.

"The stem cells are then extracted from their blood stream to help them in their treatment."

Paving the way for its possible use in other treatments, the use of stem cells in fighting heart disease, diabetes, and cancer has been well documented.

However, women were advised to get a second opinion prior to preserving their child's umbilical cord blood as a form of biological medical insurance last August.  This was when Health Minister Datuk Seri and Dr. Chua Soi Lek had said that there was no medical basis for keeping stem cells.  This opinion could not have been more incorrect.

With a growing number of doctors developing new methods in its application, Lim feels that Malaysia will soon be at the forefront of stem cell therapy in Southeast Asia.

Rapid growth in stem cell storage and treatment has been observed in the neighboring countries of Singapore and Thailand.

"South Korea is more advanced in stem cell application as they are looking into its potential use in cosmetics as well."

"They are very advanced as the research is supported by the government. Doctors and scientists in Thailand are studying the potential of stem cells in cardiac treatments," said Lim.

"In terms of research, the north Asian countries are about 10 years ahead of us, while the United States is about 15 to 20 years ahead."

The potential in curing wounds in diabetics was discovered as time passed, when the science was initially used to fight cancer said Lim.

"It was practically by accident."

Doctors from the company had to dress a 7cm wound and cut out dead tissue from the toe of an 80-year-old diabetic grandmother last year.

"Such treatment is often painful and often makes the wound larger. Finally, the doctors recommended amputation."

"But she refused and opted for stem cell therapy, which was proposed by another doctor. The wound healed within six months," Lim said.

An estimated 8,000 individuals make up the clientèle list for another stem cell bank named Cryo-Cord Sdn Bhd.  James Then Khong Lek, who is the companies managing director, said that more parents, especially those who gave birth in private hospitals, were storing their child's cord blood stem cells.

"At first, it was difficult to get even one person to sign up. But as the awareness grew, more and more parents came forward to save their child's stem cells," he said.

Doctors and scientists are exploring new frontiers as far as stem cell therapy is concerned.

As a booster for cancer treatment and in treating cartilage injuries, stem cells are being used to treat blood-related cancer such as leukemia and lymphoma.

"In the past, stem cells were collected from the bone marrow, which can be very painful. It is extracted from the hip bone, and the process requires at least 15 punctures on the left and the right," Then said.

But now, stem cells can be artificially produced in the blood stream of a patient and extracted by injecting a chemical called granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF).

After five days of injections, one given each day, special machines are used to collect the stem cells.


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