Stem cell treatment will soon give people in Serbia who suffer from hematological, malignant and immune system diseases a chance for recovery.
If the necessary financing is provided, our country will finally get the first public stem cell bank in 2012. After some time, it will connect with other public stem cells worldwide. In that way, it will be possible to get the appropriate sample from any public stem cell bank in the world. The value of the whole project is EUR 1.3 million.
Unlike private stem cell banks, public banks do not take money for taking and storing samples. Also, the donor is not in control of the stored sample, and that sample can be used to treat anyone who needs it. Parents donate their newborn's cord blood and never ask who has got these cells. There are also family stem cell banks, which are always formed next to the public ones, and they store the samples an ill member of the family might need.
The first public stem cell banks were opened in 1990 and 1991 in Milan, Dusseldorf and New York. Today, about 500,000 samples are stored in public banks all around the world, and over 10,000 transplants have been done so far. Private stem cell banks are forbidden by law in France and Italy. France has 3 and Italy has 7 public (and family) stem cell banks.
Dr. Dragana Vujic, head of the Department for Bone Marrow Transplantation in New Belgrade's Mother and Child Institute, explains that the usage rate of samples stored in public family stem cell banks is higher than the usage rate of those stored in private banks.
- The probability that a sample stored in a private stem cell bank will be used is below 0.004%. When someone suffers from acute leukemia and needs cord blood stem cell transplant, it is desirable that there is no complete match.
Administration as obstacle on the path to recovery
Implementation of the project envisaging construction of the first public stem cell bank in Serbia started back in 2008. The value of the whole project is about EUR 1.3 million.
The main project designs have already been finished, whereas technical audit should be completed until August 15. If the required funds are provided, construction of the first public stem cell bank in Serbia may be finished in one year.
- For this year, RSD 39 million are earmarked in the budget for the public stem cell bank. At this moment, that money is not enough to finish all the things in the pipeline, which is why we hope that there will be certain donors interested in helping the construction and equipping of that bank - Dr. Dragana Vujic says for eKapija.
However, as she points out, the biggest obstacle to the construction of a public stem cell bank is administration, that is, extremely long period of waiting for a location permit to be issued for the facility.
- Members of the transplant team have already completed a training in the use of latest technologies, and the only problem is the location permit. We are constantly sending appeals to the city authorities, asking them to make that job easier for us, because this is a project of national significance.
As it is planned, the building of the stem cell bank will be built in the yard of Dr Vukan Cupic Mother and Child Institute in New Belgrade. This new facility will have to meet all world standards for stem cell banks and it will span 600 square meters.
(the Mother and Child Institute, Belgrade)
"We are altruists"
According to valid world standards (which are calculated on the basis of the number of citizens), the public stem cell bank in Serbia should have about 10,000 samples, people at the Mother and Child Institute explain.
Dr. Dragana Vujic stresses that the required number of samples can be collected over the period of five years, but only if as many people as possible join the project implementation.
She explains that the technology in use in stem cell banks is very expensive and sophisticated, but that the benefit for patients is immeasurable and that a stem cell transplant is the only hope for recovery for some people.
People at the private family stem cell bank Cryo Save also believe that the formation of one such institution is of extreme importance for our country.How much it will cost to operate the public stem cell bank in Serbia is now known yet. In order to learn that, we must first know the number of required staff, the number of samples planned to be collected during one year, as well as overhead costs. Within the first three years, as people at the Mother and Child Institute expect, the number of collected samples should amount to 500-1,000 per year.
Once the bank is in operation and accredited (becomes part of NetCord), it will have to exchange information on stored samples with other banks and medical institutions worldwide. That means that the costs of stem cell processing and transport will be borne by the health insurance fund of the country the patient is treated in.
Whom I can help?
Stem cells are today successfully used in the treatment of chronic and acute leukemia, aplastic anemia (shortage of blood cells), inborn bone marrow deficiencies, inborn blood diseases, lymphoma and tumors like neuroblastoma - the most malignant tumor in children. Treatment of autoimmune diseases, myocardial infarction and cerebral paralysis in children is still in the phase of testing.
- Stem cell transplant cures over 50 percent of patients. The greatest success is achieved in the treatment of aplastic anemia. If the patient is a child under ten years of age, and the donor is the child's brother or sister, the success rate is 92%. Certain forms of immunodeficiencies (inborn deficiencies of the immune system) are successfully treated in 90% of cases. Stem cell transplant cures neuroblastoma in 20 to 40 percent of cases, which is a great success – Dr. Dragana Vujic explains for eKapija.
People with big heart - interest already expressed
People at the Mother and Child Institute believe that the citizens recognize the importance of stem cell donation and that they will answer the call of the public stem cell bank once it is is put in operation.
- I am occasionally contacted by future parents who have heard about the bank at the Institute and say they are willing to donate cord blood. Unfortunately, we are at this moment unable to take samples because the Ministry of Health has only given us a consent for the family bank, and there is also not enough space to store other samples – Dr Vujic says for eKapija.
- The public in Serbia is well-informed on the possibilities of stem cell treatment and the advantages of cryo-preservation of this valuable life material. Cryo Save has, over its five years of operations in Serbia, put much effort into educating and informing the public. The opening of a public stem cell bank will only increase and expand people's current interest – says Vuk Devrnja from Cryo Save.
Until a public bank is put in operation, all those interested in storing their newborn's stem cells can do that in one of five private banks that have their affiliates in Belgrade. Since 2007, when the Ministry of Health allowed hospitals and maternity wards in Serbia to take samples of stem cells from blood cords, over 1,500 such samples have been taken. Once the blood sample passes numerous laboratory tests, it is sent to companies specialized in transport and export of cord blood to a bank abroad.
- The costs, which include transport, processing and preservation of samples for 20 years, amount to EUR 1,780 and are among the lowest in Europe - people at Cryo Save say for eKapija.
Medical institutions in Serbia that use stem cells in the treatment of various diseases are: the Military Medical Academy (VMA) in Belgrade, the Mother and Child Institute in Belgrade, and hematology institutes in Belgrade and Novi Sad.M.S.