Push For Cord Blood Banks Continues

March 27, 2007
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Legislation signed into law in early January put the Michigan Department of Public Health in charge of creating a statewide network of umbilical cord blood banks to harvest and store donated cord blood stem cells.

The original package of bills included HB 6294, which would have provided $5 million to the Department of Community Health from the 21st Century Jobs Trust Fund to fund the network, award grants to qualified stem cell banks, and raise awareness and knowledge about the benefits of cord blood and stem cell research.

But Gov. Jennifer Granholm vetoed the $5 million earmark, along with a measure that would have allowed a $100 refundable income tax credit for cash donations to the network of banks.

Rep. Glenn Steil Jr., R-Cascade, sponsored the bill that did pass and was supposed to initiate the build-out of a cord blood bank network. Steil said he is exploring potential funding alternatives that could be spelled out in a new proposal and said he’s going to begin the conversation again and see what kind of response he gets. But given the state’s current debt, he doesn’t think it will go anywhere for a while.

“I’m not sure how successful I’m going to be because we’re facing a large deficit. I’m going to take a wait-and-see approach,” Steil said. “I’m still going to pursue it. I’m not giving up, but right now is not the time to bring up the funding issue, because the state is just really broke.”

When Steil introduced the bill last year, it garnered the support of many of his Democratic colleagues. Now that the Democrats are in charge of the House, he said, he hopes there will be some room to negotiate.

“Cord blood cells literally save lives. It’s not only a health issue, but an economic stimulus issue because it involves cutting-edge technology,” Steil added. “That’s why we felt 21st Century Jobs Funds were a really appropriate funding source, because they’re directed toward emerging industries.”

Rep. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, had introduced the bill that would have provided the $5 million in funding for the network. He said it was both a social and a moral issue for him.

Based on the state’s economy and all the talk about growing the life sciences industry here, he thought the 21st Century Jobs Fund was a good fit because it was established to support the development and commercialization of competitive-edge technologies in the life sciences, among other areas.

The Strategic Economic Investment and Commercialization Board determines what research and development projects are granted money.

“We did kind of push the envelope by trying to take the money, because we were more or less superseding the board’s function,” Casperson acknowledged. “In the end, there was a dispute from the Senate about the approach we were taking to get there.”

That’s where proponents ran into a roadblock, he said.

Casperson said Right To Life and other organizations supporting the cord blood network agreed to get involved in trying to find some other funding avenues, if possible, and trying to mediate with the board for the funding.

“My understanding is that all the parties involved are going to take their case now to the board,” he added. “There are people trying to pursue the money to make it happen.”

If the network does get funding somewhere along the line, the banks would make cord cells available to transplant centers working on treatments for diseases and injuries, and some would be made available to peer-reviewed medical research projects, as well. The expectation is that the availability of cord cells would stimulate cord stem cell research in Michigan and help grow the state’s life sciences economy.

Umbilical cords, once disposed of as “medical waste,” are plentiful sources of stem cells, which are the building blocks of the blood and immune system — the “parent” cells of all other blood cells. Stem cells have the potential to morph into any cell found in the human body. They can differentiate into other tissues, organs and blood vessels and can generate healthy tissue to replace damaged or diseased tissue.

Cord blood cells can be used to treat various genetic disorders of the blood and immune system, leukemia and certain cancers, and some inherited body chemistry disorders, according to the March of Dimes. Currently, more than 45 disorders can be treated with stem cells from umbilical cord blood.

Fifteen hospitals throughout Michigan already participate in the Michigan Community Blood Centers’ nonprofit Cord Blood Bank, which was established in 1999. The birth of the Cord Blood Bank stemmed from the development of the pediatric bone marrow transplant program at DeVos Children’s Hospital in 1998, said Mary Banfill, Michigan Community Blood Centers’ stem cell laboratory supervisor.

“Their very first patient over there was in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant and they couldn’t find a match from an adult donor, so they ended up using cord blood from Italy,” she recalled. “That was the impetus behind this; there was a need for it out there.”

When DeVos Childen’s Hospital created its bone marrow transplant program, it contracted with Michigan Community Blood Centers to do the processing of its bone grafts, and Banfill set up a laboratory to support the program. A cord blood bank uses much of the same equipment and processes used to store adult stem cells, so the infrastructure for a cord blood bank was already in place, she said.

The Cord Blood Bank collects and stores cord blood from participating hospitals in Grand Rapids, Bay City, Clare, Grand Haven, Holland, Midland, Muskegon, Niles, Saginaw, St. Joseph, Traverse City and Zeeland. It ships cord blood cells all over the world. The organization lists tissue types anonymously on international registries, and the transplant centers use the registries to search for matches.

The bank relies on charitable contributions to operate. It costs about $1,000 to freeze every cord blood donation. Since the cord bank’s budget is capped at $350,000 a year, it’s limited to freezing and storing a total of 350 units per year, Banfill said. She runs the operation with the help of medical technologists Krista Allers and Beth Vanderwall, who share the equivalent of one full-time job.

“Because of our financial constraints, we can’t really promote our program as much as we would like to,” Banfill said. “When the (cord bank network) legislation was proposed, we were really, really excited that we were going to be able to expand the cord bank program, but the money aspects of the bills didn’t go.”

According to the Cord Blood Bank, the blood from one donated umbilical cord may provide enough stem cells for transplant to a child with a life-threatening disease, and two cords may provide enough stem cells for an adult transplant.

In early January, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement encouraging parents to donate cord blood. The academy also encouraged families to use public banks that make cells available to anyone who might need them. Private cord blood banks, on the other hand, serve families that choose to bank their baby’s cord blood for their own family’s potential use.  HQX

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