Commercial cord blood banking controversy in Ireland

9 June 2009

Following on from a report earlier this year that some UK hospitals were refusing to allow the harvesting of umbilical cord blood at birth by health professionals licensed by commercial operators (see previous news), the Times newspaper has now reported that parents of babies born in Ireland may sue Irish health authorities for preventing the collection of umbilical cord blood cells at birth. At present, collection can only take place in private hospitals, and cord blood must be stored in tissue banks overseas because there are no public or private Irish cord blood banks.

Professor Colin McGuckin, stem cell specialist and president of Novus Sanguis, an international research consortium on cord blood and adult stem cell research, is quoted as saying that Ireland was being “left way behind the rest of Europe and the world” and that storing cord blood as a potential future source of therapeutic stem cells for the new baby, whilst not a guaranteed cure, could be “hugely beneficial” (see Times news report). Although tissue-matched stem cells from cord blood can be used for the treatment of various rare diseases, and are considered to hold significant promise for a range of others, the benefits of stem cell therapeutics remain non-proven for most conditions. The argument for storing cord blood is that a precise tissue match would be perfect for future stem cell treatments of the child from whom the sample is taken, should these become available and the child develop a relevant disease in later life.

The Irish Health Service Executive (HSE) reportedly said that hospitals would harvest cord blood in cases “where consultants identified a risk to a child in later life”, but although in the past there were instances of harvesting at the request of parents for private storage, it had prohibited this practice because of a lack of insurance to cover such staff action. The Clinical Indemnity Sche­me announced last year that it would not cover health professionals for the collection of cord blood for banking by a commercial organization without specific authorisation from the Irish Medicines Board for that hospital to do so, or for the treatment of a named individual organized by the Irish Blood Transfusion service. Private companies that harvest the blood have their own insurance.

Irish politician and solicitor Alan Shatter (Fine Gael Deputy) said that the HSE was advising hospitals of the insurance implications of collection, but warned there could be a legal liability if the HSE and public hospitals prevented patients from undergoing the process (see Irish Medical News report).

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