BANGKOK — In a skyscraper high above Bangkok, a fingerprint scanner bleeps, glass doors slide open and female technicians enter a humming lab.
One unseals a cold storage tub marked “Thai StemLife,” sending white vapors billowing upwards. Another worker palms a small container filled with purplish goo. In swift choreography, a steel box is lifted from the tub and the container is inserted into its prescribed slot.
That goo is umbilical cord blood, rich in stem cells and siphoned out right after childbirth. The cord, and the blood inside, is typically tossed aside as biological waste.
But in Thailand, worlds away from the political din surrounding stem cells in America, more and more parents are choosing to bank the cord blood of their newborns to use, perhaps, in future medical treatments.
Thailand could be well-positioned to cash in on the trend, as the business of storing stem cells relies on two factors: high birth rates and a class of moneyed parents. Thailand, already a regional healthcare mecca, has both.
A handful of start-ups — Thai StemLife, Cyroviva Thailand, Cordlife and others — are now vying to store stem cells from the roughly 800,000 babies born each year in Thailand.
“You have to do this business in places where fertility rates are high,” said Kostas Papadopoulos, CEO of Thai StemLife, which is Thailand’s largest private stem cell bank. “In Singapore, people just don’t have sex enough. And even though purchasing power in Thailand isn’t as good as Europe, America or even North Asia, the fertility rate is quite good.”
So, it seems, are Thai StemLife’s prospects. Founded in 2005, the company became profitable in two years, Papadopoulos said.
With more than 3,300 stem cell samples already stored in its deep-freeze tanks, it boosted clients by 25 percent last year. The biobank charges nearly $3,700 for a lifetime of stem cell storage. “This year,” Papadopoulos said, “we’re looking at doubling (clients).”
The science behind stem cell treatments, though full of promise, is also steeped in confusion and mystique.
There are two kinds of stem cells: embryonic and adult. Embryonic stem cells, which spring from fertilized eggs, can morph into any type of cell. Inside a womb, they eventually divide and divide until a fetus is formed — unless they’re collected, halting growth of a potential embryo.
Earlier this month, U.S. President Barack Obama lifted certain restrictions on federal funding of research on embryonic cells, long considered a political lightning rod. (Despite misconceptions, private funding of such research has always been legal.)
Adult stem cells, the type collected from umbilical cords, aren’t saddled with the same ethical concerns. They’re less versatile but still useful for certain medical treatments. Adult stem cells are usually difficult to extract — liposuction or dialysis are among the methods — and they’re thought to be less effective in treatment as a person ages.
Still, umbilical cords offer the cells in a perfect, easy-to-tap package. But once the cord is tossed aside, it’s difficult to obtain such a pure, voluminous sample later in life.
“After the baby is born, you just insert the needle in the umbilical cord and suck all out all that’s available,” said Somjate Manipalviratn, an obstetrician with Superior A.R.T., a Bangkok infertility clinic.
Likewise, treatment is almost startlingly simple. The purplish goo can be thawed and injected into a patient’s bloodstream. Stem cell treatments are thought to benefit people suffering from more than 80 diseases, including leukemia, hepatitis and thalassemia, a blood disease prevalent in Thailand.
Parents who opt to store these cells hope they’ll never need them. And very few do. Thai StemLife has thawed and released only about 50 samples for treatment. Like all stem cell bio-banks, most customers end up paying only for peace of mind.
Somjate likens this to insurance, telling his patients, “If you can afford it, go for it.” About 80 percent of his patients — who are largely affluent, he said — choose to store their baby’s cord blood.
“Almost all of them have babies at the private hospitals in Thailand,” he added. “The government hospitals aren’t talking about stem cells yet.”
Somjate also cautions them from believing every bio-bank’s claim, which sometimes veer into “science fiction,” he said. For parents who regret not storing umbilical cord blood, one Bangkok dentist clinic offers to extract stem cells from baby teeth, a less-proven method. (Thailand has yet to follow U.S. clinics promising to retrieve stem cells from menstrual blood.)
For many parents, it’s not all about stem cells’ brief track record. Stem cells provoke great wonder and hope for future scientific developments. And breakthroughs, however recent, are already happening in Asia.
Ian Fox, whose wife is Thai, opted to store his son’s cells on a whim. “We saw some PR literature in the hospital and thought, hey, let’s just do it,” Fox said. “It seemed wise and it wasn’t terribly expensive.”
His son was born in Bangkok with spastic diplegia, a form of cerebral palsy that left an immobilizing stiffness in his left leg. Doctors later told Fox his son’s “conventional options were a lifetime of orthopedic shoes and Botox injections. We thought, ‘There’s got to be a better answer.’”
After six weeks of fretting and intense research, the Foxes decided to try a stem cell injection. Several weeks later, they said, their son was noticeably more mobile.
But the boy, now 3, has also benefited from extensive physical therapy and hyper-baric oxygen treatments. And it’s difficult, Fox said, to prove which treatment spurred his son’s progress.
“We observed fairly rapid improvement after the stem cell treatment,” Fox said. “But I’m not going to tell you that the stem cell treatment totally cured him. We can’t ever say for sure.”
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