Being perched at the bottom of the planet sure has its perks when it comes to a pandemic, but for other medical situations, Aotearoa’s positioning can prove quite the hurdle. It was this geographical isolation that, nearly two decades ago, drove Jenni Raynish to co-found Cordbank, a state-of-the art New Zealand company that stores babies’ cord blood so that its stem cells may be used to treat all manner of diseases and conditions that can occur from childhood through to old age.
Birth Of The Cordbank
“My now-19 year-old daughter, Valentina, was the inspiration behind the business,” Jenni tells Verve. “I first read about cord blood banking in an American fitness magazine while I was pregnant with her. It just seemed so straightforward, to use these perfect, brand new backup cells to help fix something that goes wrong later in life.”
Jenni’s father’s death was still a painfully fresh memory at the time also—he’d succumbed to a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s the previous year.
“I watched him lose his facilities and abilities one by one over the years,” recalls Jenni, “and I was just thinking, ‘What makes someone go backwards like this?’ Obviously, it has to be cellular—ageing is about cellular death.”
Reading about cord blood stem cells’ regenerative properties, Jenni had a “lightbulb moment”. There were plenty of opportunities to bank cord blood in the US, but it must be processed within a strict window, and, regardless of potential delays, the flight time alone across the Pacific poses a massive risk. At the time, there were no companies offering the service here—or even in the wider Asia-Pacific region.
“On the one hand, you have this incredibly organic product that is very easy to collect, but then everything afterwards is super technical and specific,” says Jenni. “Once collected and at the lab, it takes around four hours to process, and is then stored at minus-197°C. It requires a lot of kit.”
Jenni remembers experiencing “that tyranny of distance for New Zealand”, and lamenting the lack of opportunity for Kiwi kids to store their cord blood, “so I decided to start a cord bank for New Zealand families in New Zealand”.
When you’ve never had a baby, there’s so much stuff you just don’t know, when you’re pregnant, there’s tsunami of information that you have to deal with and it’s so overwhelming. But parents are good at deciding what’s important.
The stem cells in cord blood—the blood that stays in the umbilical cord after it has been cut—serve as “the building blocks of organs, tissues, blood and the immune system”, while also possessing the ability to transform into other cell types, such as heart, muscle, and nerve cells.
“Those stem cells are a perfect match to you,” says Jenni. “They can be reinfused into you to do all kinds of things, including rebuilding the immune system after chemotherapy. The cells are programmed to grow—you effectively grew from them in the first place.”
They can even be used for close family members, and more and more research is showing the treatment to be even more effective, and certainly more accessible, than bone marrow transplants.
If someone had a genetic, or inherited disease, would the stem cells also be ‘infected’?
“Cord blood wouldn’t kill a genetic disease, but that’s not its purpose. We’re not genetic engineering. What they do is regenerate and repair. If you think about it as photocopying, when you’re born, you’re this perfect, crystal clear image, but as you age, the image becomes paler and more faded. When you add stem cells, it’s basically a reboot, because those cells don’t dissipate, they divide and replicate.”
Like injecting more ink into the photocopier?
Are there religious issues?
“No, the controversy tends to be when people are taking stem cells from embryos, but these are actually live babies.”
The collection process takes minutes, is completely painless—both for mother and child—and is carried out by the midwife or obstetrician who will have been informed in advance.
“There is an easy online consent process that must be completed, as parents’ are creating this contract on behalf of their unborn child, and the cord blood belongs to the baby,” says Jenni. “Once they’ve done that, they’ll receive a sealed, sterile collection kit which they’ll hand over at the hospital. When the blood is collected, it’s picked up by a courier and taken straight to our lab in Auckland.”
Banking cord blood is becoming a popular gift from grandparents, too.
“A lot of them see it as a legacy gift,” says Jenni. “Something that they can pay for that will outlast their lives and will last the whole of the child’s life. Something that will be useful forever. There is no downside.”
What’s more, it’s surprisingly affordable, with an initial payment of $2,900 (to cover the collection kit, processing, testing and courier), followed by a storage fee of just $225 per year.
On the one hand, you have this incredibly organic product that is very easy to collect, but then everything afterwards is super technical and specific, once collected and at the lab, it takes around four hours to process, and is then stored at minus-197°C. It requires a lot of kit.
Banking Saves Lives
The Ministry of Health classifies cord blood banking as a medicine, which means the industry is strictly regulated and a licence required, with CordBank being the only family cord blood banking company in New Zealand with this license.
“We are rigorously inspected and audited annually,” says the founder of Cordbank—which is Australasia’s longest established and most experienced cord blood collection, processing and storage company. “In fact, we probably have the strictest regulations in the world—to the point where people at international conferences are taken aback that we are regulated to that degree!”
Why is cord blood collection not standard practice?
“I wish it was, but there are just so many demands on the health systems in western countries and it ultimately comes down to funding—often short-term funding takes precedence. But it’s difficult for people who make those funding decisions, a choice between current demand and future thinking. I do believe that the healthcare system in New Zealand needs to radically change.”
Is it in the pharmaceutical industry’s interest for cord blood banking to not be better funded?
“I wouldn’t disagree with that. What we do is disruptive in a way that is pretty extraordinary. A lot of experts are saying that pharmaceutical medicine has really reached the point where it’s discovered all that it’s going to discover, and that the breakthrough of this century of the 21st century will be stem cells. That they’ll make as dramatic a difference in the lives of the kids who have them stored as antibiotics made to the generation of all of us alive today. And it makes perfect sense to me because pharmaceuticals generally treat the symptom, they don’t fundamentally solve the problem. Whereas cord blood stem cells do solve the problem, because they are actually designed to build.”
Research shows that one in 200 children born today will require a stem cell transplant in their lifetime. Jenni tells of Frances Everall, who was diagnosed with stage four cancer when she was just four years old, a prognosis so dire that her parents were advised to take her home to die. But they opted for cord blood stem cell treatment, and it worked: “You can treat cancer, but you often die because there’s no way to rebuild your immune system. She’s the only stage four neuroblastoma child to survive in New Zealand because she had the cord blood stem cells.”
Jenni laments that Cordbank’s biggest challenge is raising awareness.
“When you’ve never had a baby, there’s so much stuff you just don’t know,” she says. “When you’re pregnant, there’s a tsunami of information that you have to deal with and it’s so overwhelming. But parents are good at deciding what’s important. Cord blood banking makes them stop for a moment, and think, and when they do, when they really look into it, it’s just such an obvious and straightforward decision.”