Healthy adults will be able to boost their chances of surviving cancer and diseases such as Alzheimer’s by freezing stem cells taken from their blood for the first time.
A British company has been granted a licence to extract the cells, so that anyone can now pay to store them in the hope that they will one day help to cure fatal conditions.
Until now, it has only been possible to bank stem cells taken from umbilical cord blood and embryos left over from fertility treatment.
The new system, approved last week by the Human Tissue Authority, involves a nurse visiting a ‘client’ at home and taking two egg-cups of blood by syringe, as in a simple blood test. Glasgow-based company Pharmacells charges £2,495 – equivalent to the cost of storing umbilical cord blood. Another package means paying £1,695 upfront, followed by £199-a-year for storage.
The cells are stored at -80C for up to 20 years. The advantage of banking your cells is that your immune system will not react against them.
It is also most effective to use cells which are younger and healthier, because ideally they should be frozen before illness and age set in.
Scientists believe stem cells hold the key to developing cures for a huge range of fatal conditions.
They have regenerative properties because they have the ability to turn into any kind of cell in tissue, organs, nerves or bone.
Until now, processes involved in extracting them have been invasive and painful.
Now, after the blood is drawn by syringe, it is labelled with a unique barcode, then placed in a cooling pouch while it is taken to a laboratory in Sheffield.
A spinning process then separates out the blood plasma, the liquid part of blood in which cells are normally suspended.
A system developed at Wisconsin University in the United States is used to isolate the stem cells.
Every blood sample produces billions of cells. The vials are then frozen and taken to a storage unit in Rochdale. The site also stores film archives for the British Museum.
Before this new technique was discovered, adults could only bank their stem cells if they had liposuction to extract them from body fat, or via a painful process known as apheresis which circulates the blood outside the body.
Both methods are expensive and produce stem cells which are already programmed to turn into specific cells in the body, for example, tissue cells or nerve cells.
Experts have been sceptical about whether these cells are as effective as those taken from umbilical cord blood and have warned that those who bank them may have been given false hope.
Dr Irving Weissman, director of the US Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford University in California, has warned that those paying for private umbilical cord banking are wasting their money because they can produce only certain cell types.
He said: ‘They don’t make brain, heart or skeletal muscle, despite what various people claim.’
Others question whether stem cells will be of any use at all after decades in a deep freeze.
But the latest method produces stem cells which are at a very early stage of development, meaning they have the ability to turn into any kind of cell in the body.
It is these cells which are most useful to scientists developing cures for diseases.
Pharmacells chief executive Athol Haas said: ‘Of course, we can’t make any promises. But stem cells we bank will be viable for clinical use when they are defrosted, which gives people real hope.’
Graeme Purdy, chief executive of Altrika, the company which processes the stem cells, said: ‘The real innovation here is being able to extract stem cells from blood.
‘We can take these cells from a normal blood sample, a major step forward in making this available to the masses in a way which is not harrowing or expensive.’
Stem cells already save lives. Cord blood has proven invaluable in treating leukaemia, sickle cell anaemia and immune system failures.
Researchers are also working on major projects to see if stem cells can cure blindness, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and diabetes.