Australian researchers are undertaking a world-first study to try to prevent the onset of type 1 diabetes by treating children with their own umbilical cord blood.
The Sydney researchers hope the blood, rich in stem cells and immune cells, will help reboot the immune systems of children at risk of the condition, which occurs when the body attacks and kills its own insulin-producing cells.
A baby's umbilical cord and placenta are usually thrown away after birth, but the blood remaining in them is rich in cells that researchers hope will one day treat a raft of conditions.
Many parents opt to pay thousands of dollars to privately store their child's cord blood, but critics say the industry prays on the anxieties of parents as there is only a small chance the blood will be useful in future.
One of several private cord blood banks in the country, Cell Care Australia charges about $1500 up-front for cord blood storage, plus a $175 annual storage fee.
Mark Kirkland, the medical director of Cell Care and a co-investigator for the study, said worldwide about one in every 2000 to 2500 people with cord blood stored used it, partly because it was an emerging industry and the blood might not be useful for many years.
"It's one of these catch-22 situations that people are storing cord blood in the hope that it will be a future therapy, but a lot of the diseases you are hoping to treat with cord blood won't happen in that population for years or even decades," Kirkland said.
He said recent research had examined using cord blood cells to reverse type 1 diabetes, but by the time the condition was diagnosed most patients had already lost 90 per cent of their insulin-producing cells.
"If cord-blood is trying to turn off the immune process that's destroying them that's rather a bit too late," he said.
The study leader, Maria Craig, said type 1 diabetes had an enormous impact on the children who developed it.
"It's with them 24/7, they have to have at least four finger pricks and four injections daily, or be attached to an insulin pump," she said.
"That is huge to have to do - you can't have a day off because if you miss your medications it does have terrible implications in terms of your risk of complications and reduced life span. If we could prevent that it would have a huge impact on their lives."
More than 3000 children are born each year who have a first degree relative with type 1 diabetes, putting them at an increased risk of developing it.
Associate Professor Craig, a paediatric endocrinologist at the Children's Hospital at Westmead, said children aged between one and 12 who have a close relative with the condition and cord blood stored with the private bank Cell Care Australia would be eligible to participate.
Families that chose to bank the blood now would also be eligible to participate once the children were 12 months old, he said.
The children will be screened for antibodies that indicate they are at risk of type 1 diabetes, and those with two or more could enroll in the study.
Associate Professor Craig said research indicated more than half of those children would otherwise go on to develop type 1 diabetes within two years.
"Once you have those two antibodies the immune process [that kills the insulin cells] is well and truly underway," she said.
Other conditions where there was hope for future cord blood use included multiple sclerosis and stroke, and studies were currently underway overseas looking at using cord blood to treat congenital deafness and brain trauma.
The president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Michael Permezel, said the study was very exciting as it could provide some much needed information on the benefits of cord blood storage.
"At the moment the information remains unclear, so we need more research to help families decide whether or not to spend what is a large amount of money," he said.
He said public cord blood banks were already well-stocked with blood used for the treatment of childhood cancers such as leukaemia, with the exception of blood from some ethnic groups.
The research team hope to screen between 600 and 800 children, of whom about 3 per cent are likely to be eligible to participate in the study, which will be run through the Kids Research Institute at the Children's Hospital at Westmead.
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