Is it worth it to do stem cell banking? When I was a kid I remember hearing about people having themselves frozen or even just their heads frozen shortly after death.
The idea was to cheat mortality by preserving oneself or critical parts of oneself until some future date when scientists and doctors would have learned how to thaw you out and save you.
This process is called cryogenics and some folks are still having this done. It was most famously parodied in the very funny Woody Allen movie, Sleeper (see trailer below), in which Woody Allen’s character is taken out of freezing in a dystopian future. The scene where he is unwrapped from aluminum foil like some kind of giant TV dinner is priceless as are many others.
It turns out that while most people still think cryogenics is largely a waste of time and money (not to mention pretty weird), that a form of cryogenically preserving cells from your body is going mainstream because it is starting to make sense to a lot of people and governments. For other it remains controversial. Whether one supports it or not at the present time, stem cell banking is a rapidly expanding, profitable business as well.
What exactly is stem cell banking?
In stem cell banking you “bank” (i.e. store) some of your stem cells in a high-tech super-freezer that keeps them ultra cold.
In that state, the cells are kind of “frozen” in time. They are in “stasis”, still alive but essentially in a state of suspended animation in which they don’t age.
In theory such cells can remain viable in that state for decades. For example, let’s say you deposited cells in such a bank at age 30. While you over the next 3 decades you would age to 60 years old and the stem cells in your body would be “old”, your frozen stem cells would in theory not have aged and remain with the qualities of those of a 30 year old. Thus, these relatively “young” stem cells of yours could be used as the basis for a stem cell treatment for you later in life. The most accepted form of stem cell bank is cord blood banking, which has been going on for more than a dozen years. California, for example, is setting up a public umbilical cord blood bank to be operated here at UC Davis School of Medicine. I’m not involved in that effort, but it sure sounds interesting to me. Umbilical cord blood is rich in a unique type of stem cells that is thought to have great therapeutic potential.
What other types of stem cells are banked?
The cells most often discussed to be banked beyond cord blood are certain types of “adult” stem cells isolated from adipose tissue or bone marrow. Some folks have even advocated banking fibroblasts from skin, a general type of cell that can be made into induced pluripotent stem cells (the famous “iPS cells”) at some future point when clinically-appropriate iPS cell production methods are perfected. Others have advocated banking the iPS cells themselves. For more on iPS cells, you can get background here.
There is considerable debate about whether banking stem cells at this time makes sense.
What are the cases for and against stem cell banking?
The case for banking
The rationale behind stem cell banking is much like banking of money. Save now what you might need in the future.
There’s an added drive to bank stem cells sooner rather than later.
Unfortunately for us humans, our stem cells seem to deteriorate as we age.
It’s kind of like a biological form of monetary inflation.
When it comes to money, your $1 million deposit in a bank will have perhaps only 50% or less of its buying power after 20 years due to inflation. Similarly, when it comes to stem cells, the stem cells you have as a 20-year old are probably significantly superior relative to those you have as a 40 or 60-year old.
In other words, when it comes to stem cells, younger is better.
Banking younger cells is banking a better, more powerful product for potential future use. As the cells sit in the ultra-cold freezer, you can imagine them immune to aging. It would be equivalent to a bank account that promised to pay you an interest rate exactly the equivalent of inflation every year so that your $ 1 million + interest retains equivalent buying power.
The case against banking
How well do frozen cells really hold up?
We don’t know for sure how well stem cells hold up over decades in liquid nitrogen and I would bet as a cell biologist that the stem cells cryopreserved that way for 20 years would not be quite as robust as they were when fresh.
However, there is reason to believe the cells do reasonably well after such prolonged cryopreservation. Over time with increased banking we will learn more and more about how the cells hold up. Opponents of stem cell banking argue that until we learn more, it would be premature to bank one’s stem cells at this time.
One of the challenges of banking from a potential patient’s perspective is of course financial. Cell banks charge fees at the beginning and over time to maintain the storage. It really adds up over time. However, it’s hard to put a price on something that could be a life-saving therapy later on, right? Still, we are talking about many thousands of dollars in a tough economic time…..
Some final thoughts
Each individual person and family will have to decide if banking makes sense for them relative to the cost. I’m betting that more and more people will decide “yes”.
At the same time, banking technology methods are likely to improve over time as well in the future including such steps as cryopreservation technology.
It’s a Catch-22 situation of sorts.
If you wait to bank your stem cells until some future date, the methods are likely to improve yielding better cells.
However at the same time your stem cells are getting older and fewer inside of you as you age. Every day they are exposed to more environmental insults, yielding worse cells over time. There may also be tipping points past which you can no longer easily get stem cells. For example, should you get certain types of metastatic cancer or autoimmune disease prior to banking your stem cells, it may be too late at that point.
Just when it makes sense to bank adult stem cells is a tricky question, however I do think it makes sense to bank your newborn’s umbilical cord blood during that one unique moment in time when it is available.
Cryogenics of the whole body or head seems even more illogical than it ever did. However, cryogenically preserving your stem cells may be something that more and more people around the world decide makes sense for them. For me, I’m still on the fence and I still have not banked any stem cells, but I can why some people who choose to do it.