Canada is one of the few G20 countries without a public umbilical cord blood bank. That's about to change.
Ottawa and the provinces have decided to invest $48-million over eight years to create a cord blood banking system, one that should be up and running within a year.
The umbilical cord, which connects a baby in the womb to its mother, contains blood that is a rich source of stem cells. The cord is usually discarded along with the placenta.
In the coming years, however, there will be an effort to systematically collect umbilical-cord blood, particularly from babies who are aboriginal or of mixed race – groups for whom it is nearly impossible to find stem-cell matches.
"Canada has unique mixed-race ethnicities and aboriginal populations. That's why we're going to be targeting those folks in particular," said Sue Smith, executive director of OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network at Canadian Blood Services, which will be managing the cord blood bank.
The program will begin in Ottawa in the spring of 2013, then expand to Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto in 2014. (Quebec already has its own cord bank.) Collection kits will also be distributed to hospitals and birthing centres where there are high number of aboriginal births.
Cord blood can be collected in-utero, just after the baby is born but before the placenta is delivered, or ex-utero, extracted before the umbilical cord and placenta are discarded. The blood will then be sent to a laboratory in Ottawa or Edmonton where stem cells will be extracted, tested and cryopreserved in a special freezer.
Canada's cord blood bank will be linked in a database to 44 others around the world, where there are already more than half a million samples.
Currently, there are a handful of private cord blood banks that allow parents to store their child's cord blood for personal use, should the need ever arise. This service costs upwards of $1,000.
There are no fees for the public cord bank and the stem cells will be freely available to any patients who are a match, domestically or internationally.