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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: The Academy of Pediatrics this week encouraged expectant parents to donate their newborn’s cord blood to public cord banks rather than for-profit companies. These banks are used as a kind of “biological insurance” and are growing in popularity around the world. Miranda Kennedy reports from New Delhi where cord blood banks are attracting a lot of attention.
MIRANDA KENNEDY: Vineet Dhamija and his wife Astha are hanging at out home this Saturday, entertaining their 2-month-old son. They’re recently married, in their early 30s, and eager to start having kids.
VINEET DHAMIJA: Because we married late by local standards, so I think we are happy that we had our first child, just catching up with the rest of the population. I’d look at, at least two kids, she’s probably not because she’s gone through the pain.
Astha had a hard pregnancy, partly because she suffers from a genetic strain of anemia they were concerned their son might inherit.
So when friends told them about the latest medical fad in India, they decided to take part: They stored their son’s umbilical cord blood.
This blood contains stem cells, which can treat diseases like leukemia. Storing it is one of many health fads gaining popularity among India’s fast-growing urban middle class, from genetic testing to nose jobs to extreme diets.
VINEET: Fifteen years down the line, technology may just fantastically improve. I think its kind of an insurance that people are buying.
Vineet works for American Express. He admits that the $1,500 storage fee was steep for them.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says there’s no guarantee that the stem cells are useful for anything other than a handful of blood diseases.
The chance of anyone in Vineet’s family using his child’s stem cells is only 1 in 10,000. But one of India’s top heart surgeons, Naresh Trehan, hopes stem cells will be able to treat common ailments like diabetes and heart disease.
NARESH TREHAN: There is evidence already that cord blood cells can be used successfully to treat many of these blood diseases, and we believe that as we move forward it may find use in other things like even regenerating organs and other stuff like that.
If so, he says, the chance of the umbilical stem cells being used would rise to about 1 in 15. He’s leading the charge to popularize the trend in India. The first storage unit here opened three years ago.
TREHAN: That’s our job, to bring to the people of India the same what is available to anyone in the world. There are thousands of these cell types available in the U.S ., but in India you can’t match them to Indians.
That’s because in order to match, the donor usually needs to be from the same gene pool. Patients can spend years looking for a donor.
Trehan hopes to eventually get enough donors to build a public stem cell bank in India. But for now, Indian middle-class parents are banking their kids’ cord blood on the tiny off-chance they’ll be able to use it themselves.
In New Delhi, I’m Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.
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