Cord blood taken from around 2,100 newborns and stored in special blood banks after contracts had ended was uncovered by a health ministry survey released Tuesday, raising fears that the blood could be used for lucrative yet — scientifically unproven — treatments not covered by insurance.
The survey was conducted in the wake of the revelation that cord blood had been sold following a failure of a private bank and used for therapies across the country without advance notice to authorities.
“I hope it will lead to regaining trust in regenerative medicine,” Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Katsunobu Kato said in a regular news conference.
Cord blood found in umbilical cords and placenta after childbirth contains blood-forming stem cells and is widely used in treatment for blood disorders such as leukemia. But its effectiveness has not been confirmed in treating other health problems or cosmetic therapies.
The health ministry said the storage of cord blood after the end of contracts is “inappropriate” and will instruct private banks to report their activities to the ministry.
While public cord blood banks, which store cord blood for donations to a third party, are mandated to notify the government of their business practices, private banks, which store cord blood for donors themselves or for their family members, have no such obligation.
Among seven such private banks in the country, five kept cord blood taken from around 43,700 donors for future medical treatment.
Separately, cord blood from roughly 2,100 clients was not disposed of even after the contracts had ended. Some banks provided such cord blood to third parties.
Some private banks managed cord blood records poorly and doctors were unable to confirm the blood’s safety in many cases, the survey showed.
As the ministry believes cord blood could be provided against some donors’ will, it will request private banks to report on their business practices to improve the situation.
The ministry will display on its website the reports submitted by the banks and present a desirable agreement that states private banks will either return or dispose of cord blood in principle after the end of contracts.
The health ministry will also set up a panel of experts to keep monitoring whether the banks’ reports have been made appropriately.
Of the seven private banks, StemCell Institute Inc., Eil Inc., and Tokiwa Medix agreed to publicize their names while the three others declined to do so. One bank refused to be surveyed.
In August, six people were arrested and sent to the prosecutors for suspected involvement in therapies using cord blood conducted without prior notice to authorities.
Medical institutions using stem cells contained in cord blood are required to submit treatment plans beforehand for review by the health ministry, except for treating designated diseases such as leukemia.
Investigative sources have said that foreign nationals accounted for about 30 percent of patients who received unauthorized therapies based on blood from umbilical cords and placentas sold by an arrested dealer who heads a cord blood sales firm in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture.
Among the foreign clients were many Chinese.
Cord blood transplants have become popular for medical and beauty procedures, despite being expensive and running the risk of graft rejections and infection, the sources said.
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