Whilst the belt is undoubtedly being tightened across the public services, including in the NHS, worthwhile and exciting investments are being made. Without fanfare and flash bulbs, January 31st saw a significant Government announcement that gives real hope for the future of healthcare and our economy.
Cord blood has been at the heart of impressive scientific progress in recent years. In 1988 a stem cell transplant took place using cells retrieved from a donated umbilical cord and, since then, scientists have been discovering all sorts of advantages to the use of cord blood. Cord blood stem cells can be used in the treatment of patients with blood cancers like leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma. They are vitally important because these cancers are killers. For example, there are 7,000 leukaemia diagnoses each year and 4,000 deaths.
Cord blood stem cells also have benefits which other stem cells cannot match. They are collected, tissue typed and frozen after the birth of the child and then are made available as soon as a patient requires them, radically reducing the waiting time before a potentially lifesaving stem cell transplant.
With such obvious advantages, it is no surprise that globally the proportion of transplants undertaken using cord blood is increasing every year. Leaders in the field in our own country, like the Great Ormond Street hospital, will only use cord blood stem cells where they are available. Yet where Britain once led, we are now falling behind the US, France, Germany and Spain. All of those countries now outstrip our cord blood collection, inhibiting our research capacity in this field and leaving us with a bill of £6 million a year to import expensive cords from abroad that don’t always meet the needs of our ethnically diverse country.
It is a shocking statistic that if you have a blood cancer like leukaemia and you are from a mixed race background you are three times more likely to die because of a lack of a successful stem cell transplant. It is even more shocking that those life saving stem cells in cord blood are nearly always thrown away as waste.
This is why I was delighted when during my cord blood debate in Parliament on 31st January, Public Health Minister Anne Milton announced that the Government would put an extra £4 million into the vital cord blood service that already exists and confirmed that the Government will be increasing our cord blood bank to 20,000 units by 2013. This is an important step towards the now agreed goal of 50,000 cords which will finally meet the demand in this country. I look forward to philanthropic support at least matching the Government's financial commitment in the coming years.
Cord blood is not in the speculative tray of regenerative medicine, it is in the immediate life-saving tray. The increase in cord blood collection and transplants will eventually be able to save at least 200 lives a year.
Cord blood stem cells also present an opportunity for developing and growing a world-leading bio-tech industry in the UK.
With stable access to patients through the NHS and world-class research centres and experts, the UK is well placed to become a hotspot for rigorous and advanced clinical trials. The opportunity for growth is exemplified by the success of the Centre for Clinical Haematology at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. The centre opened in 2005 as a result of an investment of £2.2 million of non-NHS money.
Since then, the work of the centre has led to the creation of 125 new jobs, helped two start-up companies, and made it possible for the NHS to access £15 million worth of free drugs. This success has been recognised by the voluntary sector, with Leukaemia Research investing a further £2.4 million in the centre to set up a Therapy Acceleration Programme in blood cancers.
There is now an opportunity to secure significant investment from the pharmaceutical industry and spur the creation of new private sector jobs, new entrepreneurial British companies and new treatments. The health of our economy and the health of our patients can both be improved by supporting cord blood rather than literally throwing the benefits for now and the future away.