Experts cheer plan for Gilbert stem-cell center

The Valley’s first umbilical-cord blood bank, set to open in Gilbert later this year, already is drawing attention from international researchers and local residents curious about stem-cell science.

The Celebration Stem Cell Centre is preparing to register with the Food and Drug Administration and hopes to begin processing billions of life-saving stem cells by mid-June. A grand opening is set for May 4.

The center will give Valley residents a greater opportunity to learn about, and contribute to, cutting-edge stem-cell research, said founder Sherry Lund of Paradise Valley, who, with her husband, Bill, is personally financing the construction and operation of the center. 

And it marks another step in Gilbert’s efforts to become one of the Valley’s preeminent medical-biological research centers.

“There’s a lot of research being done right now with cord blood,” Lund said. “We just don’t have enough of it.”

Cord-blood stem cells, drawn from a newborn’s umbilical cord, have the potential to treat a variety of serious diseases, said Frances Verter, director of the Parent’s Guide to Cord Blood Foundation in Maryland.

Verter said stem cells now are being used in clinical trials to treat cerebral palsy and could be used to treat Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and strokes.

“I think that it will eventually become commonplace,” she said.

Parents who pay to bank their baby’s cord blood can later use it to extract stem cells for transplants or regenerative treatments, Verter said.

If a person were diagnosed with a condition such as leukemia or aplastic anemia, healthy stem cells from a family member’s cord blood could be used to provide treatment by replacing the patient’s immune system, the Maryland foundation says.

Unlike embryonic stem cells, cord-blood research has not been controversial and is supported by many conservative political groups, including the Family Research Council.

The Celebration Stem Cell Centre will offer private blood-banking and a repository for public donations that can be used for clinical research and treatment.

An on-site research lab will be used to assist Dr. Nabil Dib, a local researcher, in his clinical trials at Mercy Gilbert Medical Center, where he uses bone-marrow stem cells to treat serious heart conditions.

The center also plans to produce stem cells for researchers in Germany, Switzerland and Belgium. Lund said several companies in the U.S. also have expressed interest.

Linda Mottle, director of Arizona State University’s Center for Healthcare Innovation & Clinical Trials, said the new company would be a “marvelous” addition to the state’s health-care industry.

“This is one more wonderful resource in building our overall bioscience landscape and the critical mass of companies that we need in Arizona,” she said.

In recent years, Gilbert has attracted a number of large medical developments, including three hospitals and the M.D. Anderson Banner Cancer Center, expected to open in fall 2011.

“Gilbert has highlighted health care as one of its premiere services,” said Laurie Eberst, president of Mercy Gilbert Medical Center. “It’s coming true. It’s already happening.

“And then to have the Celebration Stem Cell Centre, where they’ll be producing these stem cells, really sets Gilbert aside. It puts us on the map.”

Verter said the Celebration center will compete with Cord Blood Registry, the world’s largest cord-blood bank, based in Tucson. She expressed surprise that a company would open in the same state as the industry giant, but Verter said it could succeed.

“I have seen in the past couple of years some small banks open, and despite the economic turmoil, they’ve been quite successful,” she said.

For private banking, cord-blood banks generally charge an initial fee of $1,600 to $2,000 for collection, processing and shipping. Long-term cryogenic storage costs about $125 per year.

Lund said a mother interested in banking her baby’s cord blood should contact the Celebration Stem Cell Centre by the 34th week of her pregnancy.

After a series of screening tests, the woman would receive a box with all the components a nurse or doctor needs to draw the baby’s cord blood immediately after birth. That blood sample must then be processed within 48 hours. Lab technicians will test the sample to determine the number of viable stem cells, which then will be frozen and stored for future use.

“We look at it as being more valuable than gold,” Lund said.

With partnerships in place with local hospitals and perhaps a major hospital in Atlanta, Lund is preparing to expand.

“My vision is to see Arizona lead the way in donor hospitals for cord blood and bone marrow,” she said.

Dib, whose application of stem-cell research to treat serious heart conditions already has saved several lives, said Gilbert is on its way to becoming a medical destination.

“In the next 20 years, we’ll be a center for scientists worldwide to come to be trained from basic science to clinical application, a center that will attract patients from all over the world,” he said.

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by Parker Leavitt – Mar. 28, 2010
The Arizona Republic