Qatar's Virgin Health Bank eyes GCC expansion

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(Image for illustrative purposes)

(Image for illustrative purposes)

Doha-based Virgin Health Bank, which enables families to bank and store stem cells, is in talks with further GCC countries to introduce public cord banks in a bid to boost stem cells available for Arabs.

The firm, founded by the UK entrepreneur Richard Branson, is in talks with health officials in Qatar to establish a public bank, which would collect cord blood that would then be made available to the public, and hopes to roll out similar programmes across the rest of the Gulf.

“We’re looking at programmes in a number of GCC countries,” said Andrew Glen, commercial director at Virgin Health Bank.

“Essentially the programmes would be families donating their cord blood into a central bank, which would then become a source of matched units for a local population,” he added.

Cord banks store and freeze blood collected from a newborn’s placenta and umbilical cord, which can then be made available to patients suffering from a range of blood and immune diseases.

Private cord banks, where parents pay companies such as Virgin Health Bank to store their child’s cord blood, have become increasingly popular in recent years. The global stem-cell market is forecast to treble to US$64bn by 2015.

Samples of stored cord blood cells available are in short supply, particularly for those of Arab ethnicity, said Glen.

“Of the 20.7m [units available globally] there are less than 50 units available in the whole of the GCC, so if you are of Arab decent and you need a stem cell transplant at the moment its extremely unlikely that you are going to find an unrelated donor,” he said.

“The way a public programme would work is that education is provided to potential donors so they understand the importance of that donation to their community.

“We would educate them to the point where they can make an informed choice would whether to donate and typically its available in the hospital where the majority of births occur,” he added.

Virgin Health Bank, which has been operating in Qatar since 2009, has seen a significant increase in the number of Qatari parents using its private bank, said Glen.

“When we started offering the family banking that people pay for the vast majority of our clients were expatriates but now 90 percent of our clients are Arab.

“We’ve been very conscience that we needed to approach the local community in a very sensitive way so one of the things that we did very early on was we consulted with Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi and asked for him a fatwa… which has made it possible to allay any concerns that people might have from a religious and cultural standpoint,” he added.

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