Jakarta. According to leading scientists, umbilical cords are excellent sources of stem cells that can help fight certain cancers, blood, immunodeficiency and metabolic disorders, as well as heal certain skin, bone and eye injuries.
In traditional Javanese belief, the umbilical cord, or ari-ari, is said to be a newborn's spiritual "big brother" that protects the child throughout life. In fact, older generations of Javanese have been known to bury a baby's umbilical cord in their front yards for that purpose.
"Our ancestors are not entirely wrong," Indra Bachtiar, Ph.D. and principal researcher at the Stem Cell and Cancer Institute, said during a discussion held by cord blood bank Cordlife Persada in Jakarta on Saturday (20/05).
"Ari-ari indeed has plenty of health benefits for babies and their immediate families."
According to the researcher, both the umbilical cord and the blood found within it are excellent sources of stem cells.
"Cord lining and cord blood are the best sources we have for stem cells," Indra said.
Other sources of stem cells, such as adipose (fat) tissues and bone marrow, usually deteriorate with age. Cord lining and blood, on the other hand, remain rich in high-quality stem cells for many years, if properly stored.
"Stem cells have been proven to repair, rejuvenate and regenerate damaged human cells and improve a patient's quality of life," the researcher said.
In Indonesia there are 11 hospitals that currently provide stem-cell therapy, including the Cipto Mangunkusumo, Dharmais and Fatmawati hospitals in Jakarta, Hasan Sadikin Hospital in Bandung, West Java, and Sardjito Hospital in Yogyakarta.
There are also five cord lining and cord blood bank facilities across the archipelago, including Cordlife Persada in Jakarta.
A subsidiary of Singapore-based Cordlife Group, Cordlife Persada was first established in Indonesia in 2003.
"Our operations in the country have been certified by the Ministry of Health," said Diza Subranti, manager of national operations at Cordlife Persada.
According to Diza, the blood bank currently stores about 6,000 units of cord lining and cord blood from across the archipelago at its facility in Tebet, South Jakarta.
"Patients can register with us at any stage of pregnancy. But we suggest them to register as soon as possible, so that preparations to collect cord blood can be done properly," said Dr. Meriana Virtin, a medical adviser at Cordlife Persada.
To collect the umbilical cord blood and lining, doctors insert a needle into the cord at birth to harvest the blood, which they later extract and place in sterile collection bags. A portion of the cord itself is placed in a jar for later use.
After being processed, both the cord lining and blood are placed in cryogenic storage tanks, which help preserve the stem cells indefinitely.
"We can store [the cord lining and cord blood] forever because we freeze them at temperatures of minus 196 degrees Celsius," said Cordlife Group laboratory director Li Ming Ming, Ph.D.
When the cells within the cord are extracted, blood and lining samples are taken to a Current Good Manufacturing Practices-certified (CGMP) lab for manufacturing.
"To ensure patient safety, a CGMP lab is required to manufacture the stem cells," Li Ming Ming said. "At those labs, there's a track record for every step and every material used, so we know if the cells are safe to inject [into the patient] or not."
In Indonesia, Cordlife partners with ReGenic, a CGMP-certified lab in Pulomas, East Jakarta, to manufacture the stem cells.
However, the whole procedure is still very costly. Storing the cord lining and blood for a minimum of 21 years can cost around Rp 48.5 million ($3,650), while manufacturing the stem cells can cost around Rp 80 million.
"It's a great health investment," Meriana said. "The baby will be able to benefit greatly from the [stored] stem cells when he or she is older and becomes ill or injured. The stem cells can bring about a speedy recovery."
Stored stem cells may also benefit immediate family members, including the baby's own parents, siblings and close relatives.
"We believe that stem-cell therapy is the technology of the future," Meriana said.
"As more studies come out on the subject, we will discover more uses and health benefits of stem cells."