As part of my "I'm going to learn more about umbilical cord stem cell banking" journey, I visited the Netcells laboratory at Next Biosciences in Midrand recently, aka, the future home of my future baby's stem cells. I pictured a massive space with safety deposit drawers, similar to what you see in bank heist movies. The laboratory is nothing like that, and feels like a friendly research lab, reminding me that maybe I need to watch less movies, and read a bit more.
The visit to Netcells was educational and lots of fun, and I was grateful that everything was explained to me in "human terms" rather than solely in science or biology terms. This is the Netcells way – their approach is very human and friendly, yet the science and rules are strictly adhered to.
I got a little emotional while I was there too – seeing just-born babies' cord blood being processed, imagining the potential of stem cells, and envisaging my own daughter's cells in the lab in September. As much as I'm excited about baby cuddles and pink tutus, there's also something thrilling about imagining my baby's potentially life-saving cells being stored in a -196°C facility with more than 11 000 units like hers.
So aside from the fact that cells aren't stored in safety deposit boxes, here's what else I learnt:
Netcells is accredited with the American Association of Blood Banks – the only stem cell bank in Africa to have independent accreditation for the processing and storage of cord blood and tissue stem cells. Every two years, Netcells is audited to ensure they meet international standards. This is a big deal – you want to ensure stem cells are in the best place and processed the correct way. It also means that you can more easily relocate cells overseas (if you emigrate, or if you need a transplant in another country, for example).
You don't need to pay in full upfront, Netcells has a number of payment options to choose from. If you select the 60-month payment plan you can pay as little as R295 a month.
Discovery Health affiliation
Netcells is the only stem cell service in South Africa listed by Discovery Health as a preferred service provider. Members receive a discount of up to 25% off the stem cell banking fee.
Netcells is just one arm of Next Biosciences
The biotech company that owns Netcells, Next Biosciences, has other services. These include:
– TriScreen – non-invasive prenatal testing (for detecting chromosomal abnormalities such as Down’s Syndrome and Trisomy 13/18)
– FirstScreen – newborn screening (for detecting metabolic disorders when baby is born)
– Cryo-Y – semen cryopreservation (preserving semen for future fertility treatments)
– AmnioMatrix – biological dressing (the production of "biological dressings" from placental amniotic membrane for use in ophthalmic surgery)
– OptiSerum – umbilical cord blood serum eye drops (for treatment of eye disorders)
As Netcells is a private bank, they store for each family only, and don't carry out HLA-typing unless requested by the family. This is the test used to match you with a donor for your bone marrow or cord blood transplant. They also comply with the Human Tissue Act and can't use your stem cells for research without your prior written consent.
Stem cell collection
I spoke to someone during my visit who 10 months earlier had banked her baby's cells with Netcells. She said that she had a consultant advise her through the process, helping with paperwork and any questions she had. During her delivery, she never noticed the cord blood being collected as it's a painless process that doesn't affect or impede on the birth procedure, or bonding. After the birth, she and her partner contacted their consultant who arranged for the pick-up of their kit. She said that she never had to worry about the process, or do any work around it – Netcells took care of it.
Cord blood processing
I naively thought that the umbilical cord blood and tissue goes straight from the hospital or place of birth, to the lab, and immediately gets put into the storage vault (with the diamonds and jewels, of course). In fact, the cord blood and/or tissue goes through complex processing and testing and then is stored in liquid nitrogen tanks at -196°C (it's quite technical – there's a video that explains it well at the end).
Super-skilled lab technicians
Maybe it's because I'm curious, but while watching one of the women in a full sterile suit, mask and gloves process the blood, I asked what her background is, thinking that maybe she's just a straightforward lab person, whatever this might be. Turns out she has a Masters degree in genetics. Her colleagues aren't that different, with undergrad or postgrad qualifications in lab technology, chemistry, cell biology or genetics. This was really heart-warming and reassuring for me (maybe it's the pregnancy hormones acting out still), knowing my daughter's cells are going to be in the best processing and storing hands.
Watch this short video to see how stem cells are collected and stored: