Take the case of Dallas Hextell who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 9 month. His parents after months of research, enrolled Dallas in a highly experimental trial at Duke University, where a pediatric-transplant surgeon infused him with a sample of his own stem cells harvested from his umbilical-cord blood. A few days later, Derak and Cynthia went home with their son, who was 18 months old and still not crawling, much less walking or talking.
The Hextells’ story has become the centerpiece of CBR’s marketing efforts. Recently the company invited about 30 obstetricians and midwives to the Westin La Paloma resort in Tucson, Ariz., for a weekend of sun, golf and medical briefings, including dinner in a ballroom with the Hextells as guest speakers.
Critics including the American Academy of Pediatrics, accuse private cord-blood banks like CBR of making exaggerated medical promises and exploiting vulnerable new parents. Cord blood’s uses are limited at best, they say. The blood does not provide enough cells to cure an adult of a disease or injury; it is not appropriate for treating genetic conditions; and thus far there have been few trials to determine how effectively the cells can repair damaged tissue.
Doctors have been wondering if cord blood is something of a miracle cure for the past 15 years. The blood—which is usually thrown away in delivery rooms—contains a distinct type of stem cell that may act as a biochemical foreman, helping to build healthy tissues and repair damaged ones. In the early 1990s— before embryonic stem cells took over the spotlight—researchers began to explore whether cord-blood cells might be of practical medical use.
A number of trends have likely contributed to CBR’s growth, including the enormous boom in the baby-products market and the hype around stem cells in general. But one thing that has not been a factor is a rapid rise in medical uses for cord blood—because there hasn’t been one yet. Just as it was in the ’90s, a cord-blood stem-cell transplant is still an experimental procedure. This hasn’t deterred CBR from publicizing the results of a few positive studies, including a small, preliminary trial in kids with type 1 diabetes from last year.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists released its own statement in February, noting that “there is no reliable estimate of a child’s likelihood of actually using his or her own saved cord blood later.” Then it made a guess anyway: 1 in 2,700, which Kurtzberg calls “generous.”
Until widespread trials of cord-blood treatment take place, both sides will be able to use arbitrary calculations.