Stem cells have currently become a “consumer item” of sorts; and private stem cell banks have been established. These store tissue and stem cell rich blood which can be used later by donors to treat illnesses. It is therefore like a sort of “insurance policy”. Currently, plans are far underway to establish a public stem cell bank for South Africa. There are however, currently only three stem cell banks in Africa, with all of them concentrated in South Africa. These are private facilities and carry out therapeutic research and application into stem cells.
The first indigenous stem cell bank was established in September 2005 and is known as Lazaron Biotechnologies (SA) Ltd. Lazaron works in close collaboration with the University of Stellenbosch to commercialize the outcome of research carried out in the Department of Animal Sciences in the University. Lazaron specializes in the storage of infant umbilical cord blood storage and preservation for use in later years to treat diseases for which stem cells prove invaluable. According to the Lazaron website, their main focus is to “develop stem cell related biotechnologies” and come out with health enhancing knowledge and products through the compassionate, careful and concerned use of adult stem cells. They specialize in the cryopreservation (freezing to sub-zero temperatures using liquid nitrogen) of stem cells and store these preserved samples in the country for a fee. Parents usually bank the umbilical cord stem cells of their new born infants. Parents have the option of making a lump sum payment, yearly or monthly payments.
Netcells Cyrogenics is another stem cells bank. It is private and South African owned, with their storage facilities in both South Africa and in the United Kingdom. They specialize in three different types of cryogenic preservation.
(i) Baby stem cell banking: preservation and storage of cord blood and umbilical cord tissue
(ii) Adult stem cell banking: preservation and storage of peripheral blood (from blood stream for bone marrow transplants) and fatty tissue stem cells (mesenchymal)
(iii) Reproductive cell banking: preservation and storage of eggs and sperm for future fertility treatments or artificial insemination purposes
The Netcells laboratory has also successfully processed over 100 peripheral blood stem cell collections for transplants in cases of leukaemia and other specific cancers as well as blood disorders.
Cryo-Save claims to be the oldest stem cell storage service in South Africa but stores its preserved cord blood and cord tissue stem cells at its parent facilities in Belgium. The company claims that it is more advantageous to do this abroad since it actually improves the quality of stem cells because South Africa has the possibility of future restrictive legislation on stems cells research. Netcells and Cryo- Save are accredited by the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) system, but Lazaron is in the process of gaining accreditation.
This is a very interesting claim, since in 2006; a BBC news item reported that a South African based stem cells company, Advanced Cell Therapeutics (ACT) was buying stem cells meant for research purposes from California and then storing them in the United Kingdom by a company known as CryoStore. These cells were then transported to South Africa and injected into patients for therapeutic purposes. This was probably a way of “going around” the restrictive legislation in South Africa concerning the use of stem cells for research or therapeutic purposes. It looks like ACT has been silent in South Africa since then, but a look at their website shows that it is still actively involved in stem cells research and medical biotechnology in the Western world. They are currently making inroads in China where they have been given a broad patent to use human embryonic derived stem cells technology for research and therapeutic purposes.
Currently, Netcare, which is the largest private hospital chain in South Africa and the United Kingdom has the largest stem cell transplant unit, and carries out 80 annual transplants on the average. This has helped treat many adults and children who have serious blood diseases and cancers.
Since South Africa has proven to be very far advanced in stem cells technology, when it is compared to other African countries. It has become an important medical destination for people suffering from blood and bone marrow disorders as well as certain types of cancers. Ghana, a West African country was in the headlines in 2007 when a massive drive to establish a bone marrow registry was initiated to help find matches for leukaemia sufferers. This was because most of the available stem cells from South Africa were from white and mixed donors, making the finding of a match for a black person very difficult. Ghana however, lacks the logistics to start up a stem cell registry or bank, and so many people with these life threatening diseases inadvertently die or have seek treatment elsewhere at a great cost to patients. One other big issue with stem cells research is superstition. In most African communities, the umbilical cord must be buried after birth because it is believed that anyone with access to it could exert some spiritual influence on the child. This has led to skepticism towards cord tissue and cord blood storage in most African societies. However with the success of these transplants making the headlines, more and more people are willing to donate adult stem cells to save other peoples’ lives.
The future for stem cell research in Africa is very promising, but the huge amount of investment and capital needed, together with religious beliefs will lead to slow advances in this field of research until the ethical debate can be resolved.
ACT website. Retrieved 29th March, 2011 from: http://www.advancedcell.com/
Cryosave website. Retrieved 29th March, 2011 from: http://www.cryo-save.co.za/why_offshore.htm
Lazaron Biotechnologies (SA) Ltd. Retrieved 29th March, 2011 from: http://lazaron.co.za.dedi412.your-server.de/news/
Netcells Cyrogenics website. Retrieved 29th March, 2011 from: http://www.netcells.co.za/
Watts, Susan (2006). Stem cell treatment warning. Retrieved 29th March, 2011 from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/newsnight/5299306.stm