Stem cell & cord blood collection: is it worth it?
Ladies! Has your monthly time been a period of shame and hiding? Well! It turns out that menstrual blood is much more than womanly offscourings. Hide no longer, and rejoice in that precious Red Gold spilling forth from your parts.
Let me explain, before you click your way out of here. Cryo-cell International has launched C’elle, a service that will collect your menstrual fluid and extract stem cells from them. Calling menses “your monthly miracle,” the site exults, “… menstrual stem cells are unique because they have many properties and characteristics similar to both bone marrow and embryonic stem cells; they multiply rapidly and can differentiate into many other types of stem cells such as neural, cardiac, bone, fat, cartilage and possibly others…”
When you subscribe to the C’elle service, you receive menstrual cups and collection tubes; you gather your monthly winnings and then deposit them in the Cryo-Cell bank. (By the way, check out the introductory video on this site. Then tell me that British accent is real.) For this privilege, you will pay $499 per specimen, plus $99 for each year of storage.
Okay, the idea seems snicker-worthy, but is it as silly as it sounds?
First, let’s take a step back and talk about stem cells. If you’ve been wondering, what’s a stem cell again? Why’s everyone want them so bad and stuff?, here’s a brief explanation. Feel free to write this on your hand, if you need to.
Stem cells serve as a kind of repair system for the body. They are the only type of cell that can proliferate, or replicate many times over. They’re unspecialized, which means that they don’t exist for any single purpose. It’s like they’re unemployed, but multitalented. Because of their many talents and their ability to replicate like crazy, they can fill in for other cells that have been damaged or destroyed. Although they are by nature unspecialized, they can actually become specialized. No one is precisely sure how this process (called differentiation) occurs. Scientists have been able to create differentiation, but that particular art is still in its preliminary stages. If the process were to get nailed down, all types of cell therapies could be created. AND WE WOULD LIVE FOREVER.
Now, there’s a difference between embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. (Cord blood, incidentally, would be considered “adult.” “Non-embryonic” is more accurate, but it’s a mouthful.) Adult stem cells are more limited in what kind of cell types they can become. The different types of stem cells and their varying degrees of “potency,” or ability to differentiate, is where I get a little woozy, so I’m going to glide right over that. Some cells are more flexible than others, is the basic point. Although, as I said, it may be possible to manipulate cells beyond their natural capability.
So let’s go back to the above quote, where C’Elle tells us that menstrual stem cells can differentiate like crazy, blar de blar. This is something that adult stem cells do not typically do, remember? Cryo-Cell is basing their enthusiastic claims (and for-profit venture) on a single study coming from Medistem, another biotechnology firm. In November, Medistem reported the discovery of these new stem cells, which reportedly behave like embryonic cells. Now: November, you may think, isn’t such a long time ago, and you would be right. You may also think that one study (which, by the way, was performed using the menstrual blood of one woman) may not tell us all we need to know before we start collecting our periods in little cups and shipping them off along with big chunks of our bank accounts. I would agree with you on this.
The New York Times reported on these new stem cells, and not surprisingly, experts greeted the news with a dose of skepticism. One of them observed that if the cells from menstrual blood are the ones that are dying, and if you want healthy endometrial cells, you could always get them from a biopsy. So why wouldn’t you?
The menstrual-blood brouhaha (try saying that three times fast) brings up a larger question: is stem-cell collection this century’s snake oil? There are all kinds of companies offering to house our stem cells: cells gathered from cord blood, from your child’s baby teeth, from bone marrow. The chances of your needing those stem cells are slim, but according to these companies, they may just save your (or your child’s) life. Is it worth it? When private cord-blood banks and the like are profit-driven, can we trust their claims? On the other hand, if you can afford to collect your baby’s cord blood (or, okay, your menstrual fluid) and you want that peace of mind, what’s the harm?
Provide your thoughts in the appropriate spaces below. Or, whoops, above.Published February 1, 2008. Last updated March 10, 2014.