Cord blood donations rise, but dire shortage for minority races

CEO of Singapore Cord Blood Bank says more donors needed

Umbilical cord blood donations have grown to more than 13,000 units here since they started in 2005, but Singapore's only public cord blood bank says there is dire shortage for minority races in the public inventory.

Mrs Tan-Huang Shuo Mei, chief executive officer of the Singapore Cord Blood Bank (SCBB), told The Straits Times that increasing the inventory would provide a greater chance of a match for patients using cord blood for cancer treatment.

Cord blood remains in the umbilical cord and in the placenta after birth.


It is rich in stem cells, which can be used to treat blood-related cancers, as well as autoimmune and genetic diseases, including lymphoma, lupus and certain types of anaemia.

Of the more than 40,000 units of cord blood that have been donated so far, only about 13,000 met the donation criteria.

"At least 5,000 cord blood units for each ethnicity are required to achieve a 60 per cent to 80 per cent stem cell match," said Mrs Tan-Huang.

 The Chinese population currently has a match level of 70 per cent to 80 per cent in SCBB's public cord blood inventory.

But the match rate for Malays stands at a 20 per cent to 30 per cent, while it is below 10 per cent for Indians.

Since SCBB - a company limited by guarantee under SingHealth - was founded in 2005, it has facilitated cord blood transplants for 87 adults and 27 children here.

The majority of the cord blood transplants were for Chinese, at 65 per cent.

In comparison, 24 per cent were for Malays, 5 per cent for Indians and 6 per cent for those of other races.

SCBB studies have shown that patients are more likely to find a match from someone with the same ethnicity.

Last November, SCBB started allowing families to store their baby's cord blood for their own use, with the option of donating it in the future.

SCBB's family storage service is available at KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH), the National University Hospital and Singapore General Hospital.

The non-profit organisation plans to extend this to the private hospitals by June.

SCBB estimates that the public cord blood bank inventory will increase by 15 per cent to 20 per cent when all 10 hospitals offer the family storage service.

Previously, family storage services were only available at private cord blood banks, such as Cordlife, Cryoviva and StemCord.

The service does not come cheap. It costs between $1,800 and $2,200 for five years at SCBB, with an option to renew it.

In comparison, private banks charge around $5,000 and up for a contract of 21 years.

Storing cord blood is a “form of insurance”, say parents

Parents who store their babies' cord blood here say they do so as a form of "insurance".

Ms Ang Shi Hui, 33, and her husband, Mr Choong Yu Chien, 39, have stored their two-year-old son's cord blood with Cordlife.

"I know that it will not be easy to find a suitable match from a bone marrow donor or the public cord blood bank, which is why I decided to store his cord blood for my own family's use," said Ms Ang, who works in administration.


But the usage of cord blood by those who store it in private banks is low.

StemCord, which has more than 40,000 cord blood units here, said that only 15 have been used so far.

Cordlife, which stores more than 290,000 cord blood and cord tissue units for eight countries, has released 36 units for treatment, while 18 out of 130,000 cord blood units stored at Cryoviva in Singapore, India and Thailand have been used.

Cord blood stem cells are used about 10 per cent of the time in a mainstream stem cell transplant programme in paediatrics, according to Associate Professor Tan Poh Lin, a senior consultant in the Division of Paediatric Haematology and Oncology at the National University Hospital.

Ms Tricia Lee, 32, is expecting a child with her husband Aaron Teo, an operations officer, also 32. They have requested to store their baby's cord blood with the Singapore Cord Blood Bank.

"Being a first-time mother, I think that there are many uncertainties for the health of my child," said Ms Lee, an accountant.

"You wouldn't know what might happen; it's just like buying insurance for my child."

The couple plan to donate the cord blood if it remains unused.