ROME, JULY 27, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic works with an
international network to make umbilical cord stem cells available to patients
with acute leukemia, thalassemia, lymphomas and congenital immune-deficiencies.
The clinic runs a bank for umbilical cords, and any patient, from anywhere in
the world, who is genetically compatible with one of the units of blood of the
umbilical cords stored, can receive a unit of blood from the umbilical cord for
An international network to identify donors has been operative since 1995,
thanks to a computer file which has data on marrow and placenta blood donors
The bank's activities are coordinated by professor Giuseppe Leone, director of
the Institute of Hematology of the Catholic University of Rome, and professor
Salvatore Mancuso, director of the Department for the Protection of Woman and
In this interview with ZENIT, Leone and Mancuso discuss the present state of
stem cell research.
Q: What is your response to those who say that using embryonic stem cells, and
not those from the umbilical cord, is the answer for illnesses such as leukemia,
or of the blood in general?
Leone: First of all, let's speak from a clinical point of view: Cells from
embryos have never been used and they have certainly not demonstrated
On the contrary, adult stem cells, and those of the umbilical cord, have
demonstrated their validity in marrow transplants, for example, in the case of
patients with thalassemia, or children with leukemia. At present, there is no
patient who has been cured with embryonic stem cells. This must be clarified.
To those who say that ethics removes a "possibility" of cure, one should say
that at most it removes a "hope." But if we want to speak of hope, then we can
experiment with animal embryos. Once we have studied animal embryos we will be
able to say something on the subject, we will have understood a bit more. I do
not see any reason why at present human embryos should be used. Ethical problems
to one side, animals must be studied first.
Q: Are women told about the possibility of donating the umbilical cord to one of
Mancuso: Increasingly. When they come to give birth in our department, they
request that the blood of the umbilical cord be donated because of the spirit of
solidarity that is increasingly spreading. However, not all umbilical cords can
be collected and kept for donation, as there are certain minimum requirements on
the family history of both spouses.
It is necessary that the pregnancy come to its termination, as there is a whole
series of counter-indications. We can collect for donations between 30-35% of
the umbilical cords from births that take place in our department. But much of
the blood collected from umbilical cords is useful for research.
At present, there is great interest in research, not only in our department, but
also in hematology, cardiology and neurology, as adult stem cells have an
extraordinary versatility and, in fact, are restorative.
Q: How long can these cells be stored?
Mancuso: I would dare to say that they can be stored for an infinite amount of
time. Today there are cells that have been stored for 30 years and that, to a
large extent, maintain their capacity to be used. At present, the scientific
community in several research centers is seeking to store and multiply them in
vitro, as the amount of stem cells that can be collected from a cord are not
Leone: They have been used, above all, to patients with acute leukemia,
thalassemia, lymphomas, or congenital immune-deficiencies. These sicknesses are
benefiting at present the transplant of stem cells from the umbilical cord.
Research, obviously, tries to go further. The blood of the cord can give us hope
for other pathologies. Now there are hopes for heart disease.
Q: When you say that sicknesses "are benefiting," what do you mean?
Leone: In the case of acute leukemia, there is a certain number of patients that
are cured, in the case of thalassemia, the percentage is higher. In the case of
immune-deficiencies, 70-80% are cured. In the case of leukemia, it is 35-40%. We
are talking, that is, of cures.