Qatar's Virgin Health Bank eyes GCC expansion

Firm in talks with several countries to introduce public cord banks to store stem cells
(Image for illustrative purposes)
By Claire Valdini
Thu 17 Jan 2013 10:14 AM

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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