Stem-cell collection: is there a cure in the cord blood?

Declan and Helena O’Shea with twins Theon and Asha at home in Kilmihil, Co Clare. Photograph: Eamon WardDeclan O’Shea was on holiday in Portugal in 2011 when he fell off a third-floor balcony while sleepwalking. He ended up in a coma for two weeks. When he woke, he couldn’t move any of his limbs and he was given the devastating news that he had broken his neck.
After a long, gruelling period of rehabilitation that is still ongoing, Declan, who is now 36, has gained back the strength in his arms but he suffered a complete spinal injury and is now quadriplegic.

“I had been in Portugal for the weekend with a couple of mates for a motorbike race.”

“When the accident happened, my wife had to get the next flight out. I don’t think anybody in the hospital there ever said I would never walk again but we knew it was not good.”

“I went into a black depression at the start. I couldn’t get my head around it. The worst day was when I had been transferred back to the Mater hospital and I was told it was a complete injury.”

“It if had been an incomplete injury, I might have got some movement back in my legs, but there was no hope. I will never forget that day.”

Declan and his wife, Helena, who live in Kilmihil, Co Clare, had always planned to have children and they had no intention of letting his disability change those plans.

On March 26th, their baby twins, Asha and Theon, were born in Limerick Maternity Hospital to the joy of their parents.

“When I was in rehab, I had heard about a guy there whose wife had a baby and, after the birth, they collected the stem cells from the umbilical cord and had them put into storage,” Declan says.

“We decided to have our babies’ cord blood put into storage so that if a cure ever comes up for spinal injuries or if our children ever needed them in the future, they would be there.”

“I am hopeful about a cure and the scientists seem to be making big headway.”

“They are using stem cells to treat spinal injuries in rats and dogs. I know it’s a long way down the line before they will be doing it in humans but if the cure does come, I think it will be [based on] stem cells and I wanted to give myself the best chance possible.”

After the twins were born, Helena’s consultant obstetrician squeezed the blood from their umbilical cords into a special collection bag and handed it to Declan.

It was his responsibility to label the bag and hand it to a courier who ensured it arrived safely at the UK laboratory where it will be stored for the next 20 years.

The O’Sheas used a private company called Medicare Biohealth, the only company in Ireland licensed by the Irish Medicines Board to carry out cord-blood collection in Irish hospitals. They paid a discounted rate of €4,410 for two kits; the standard price for one kit is €2,450.

Controversial topic

The collection and storage of cord blood is a controversial topic, particularly in Ireland where the whole area of human tissue legislation, which would also cover human cloning and assisted fertility treatment, has not been addressed.

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