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French court lets parents harvest baby’s stem cells at birth

AFP | The stem cells will be taken from the umbilical cord and placenta at birth.
2 min

For the first time in France, the parents of an unborn baby have received permission to preserve stems cells from its umbilical cord and placenta when it is born, to treat illnesses it may develop later in life.


The parents argued in court that because their family had suffered terminal illnesses, including two cases of pancreatic cancer and other “serious hereditary diseases”, they should be allowed to keep stem cells “in case” they prove useful later.

The stem cells will be taken in the form of blood gathered from the baby’s umbilical cord and placenta as soon as it is born. They will be sent to a private blood bank in the UK and stored at -190 degrees.

Not for profit

The decision of the court in Grasse, in southern France, has raised eyebrows in France, a country that has some of the world’s strictest laws on using stem cells to treat medical conditions.

“In France, you have to be able to demonstrate that they can be used to treat a specific condition,” Dr. Heather Etchevers, a scientist with the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM) at Aix-Marseille University, told FRANCE 24.

“The issue here is that the child doesn’t appear to have been given a specific diagnosis, and in France, there are no institutions that are allowed to keep blood samples for an individual ‘just in case’ medical advances may one day render them useful,” she said.

“There also needs to be a guarantee that the sample will not be used to make a profit later on,” she added.

France’s strict laws, Dr. Etchevers explained, exist to prevent ethical abuses. “What happens if, years down the line, the company looking after the blood cells decides to hold them hostage and will only release them for a huge sum?'' she said.

Professor Ibrahim Yakoub-Agha, a haematologist at Lille University Hospital, said medical professionals in France were concerned that the court’s decision could become a “legal norm”.

“What we are worried about is that the storage of stem cells for treating illnesses becomes a commercial, rather than a medical, endeavour,” he told French daily Le Parisien.

‘Wholly justified’

The court in Grasse cleared the family to harvest the umbilical and placental blood as a “wholly justified therapeutic necessity”.

“Research is going ahead so quickly that we do believe one day stem cells may be able to be used to treat illnesses such as pancreatic cancer,” the parents’ lawyer told Le Parisien.

Dr. Etchevers said she doubted stem cells harvested from the child’s umbilical cord and placenta could ever be used to treat pancreatic cancer, but “could be useful with other cancers, such as leukaemia.”

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