Japanese Health Ministry Takes Measures to Deal with Illegal Cord Blood Use

Japan's health ministry is setting new rules after finding that some private cord blood banks continued to store blood even after storage contracts had expired -- posing a risk of being used illegally.

Cord blood is collected from the umbilical cord and placenta after the birth of a baby. It can be used to treat diseases such as leukemia.

Cord blood stored at private facilities is intended for use mainly by the baby who banked it, or by family members. Other parties can receive cord blood only from a public cord blood bank.

Police in Japan arrested 6 people in August whom they suspect violated the Act on the Safety of Regenerative Medicine by carrying out treatments to third parties using cord blood from a private bank. The arrests are the first under the law, which took effect 3 years ago.

Police believe the suspects administered cord blood to 7 patients between February 2016 and April this year. The patients were reportedly told that the blood would improve the appearance of their skin or cure cancer.

One of the 6 suspects -- a doctor in Tokyo -- told NHK before his arrest that brokers said the administration of the blood was not illegal.

The police say the material sold to the medical institutions was from a private bank that went bankrupt 8 years ago.

Following the arrests, health ministry officials investigated other private blood banks. They found another problem. Blood samples of 43,700 people were kept across the country, and those of 2,100 people were not disposed of even after contracts had expired.

They say that if such blood continues to be stored, it could again end up being administered to a third party. They are asking blood banks to check with the provider and dispose of any unneeded blood.

In order to increase transparency, the ministry also plans to have banks report where they provide cord blood, as well as its intended purpose and methods of quality control. It plans to disclose the information online.

What are cord blood banks?

In Japan, both public and private cord blood banks exist.

Public banks keep cord blood for a third party to treat leukemia and other illnesses. They've been under government regulation since a law was passed 3 years ago to ensure safe handling of the blood.

Private banks are not regulated by the government. The blood they store is meant to be used by the baby who banked it or by the baby's relatives -- and not by a third party.

Health ministry officials say they did not expect private banks to provide blood to any other parties, and that Japan has no law to regulate them. They say that's why they did not know what these facilities were doing.

Procedures, costs at one of the private banks

A private bank in Tokyo stores cord blood from more than 41,700 people. Its number of customers has been rising every year since it was set up in 1999.

Cord blood is sent to a bank within 48 hours from collection at a hospital following a baby's birth.

Workers then separate necessary stem cells, put the blood into tanks and cool it to minus 190 degrees Celsius using liquid nitrogen.

It costs about 1,200 dollars to separate the stem cells. The initial sign-up costs are around 180 dollars. This bank charges around 40 dollars annually for storage.

Officials at the bank say blood stored there is used only by the babies they belong to and the baby's relatives. They say it is not provided to any other parties.

The officials also say 12 transplants have been performed so far to treat diseases such as leukemia and brain nerve disorders.

The bank was found to have kept blood belonging to about 1,940 people even after contracts expired.

The officials explained that they store blood for a certain period after the expiration of contracts -- in case their former customers make inquiries.

Bank President Takafumi Shimizu says cord blood is valuable because it can be collected only when babies are born. He says that from now on, his facility will dispose of the blood after confirming the provider's requests.

Doctor advises caution when using cord blood

Dr. Noriyuki Katsumata from a hospital affiliated with Nippon Medical School is advising patients to be cautious when considering the use of cord blood.

Katsumata says the blood is intended to treat illnesses including leukemia, and that it has not been medically proven to be effective against other types of cancer or for beauty purposes.

He says administering the blood to a third party is dangerous, as it may trigger rejection reactions or cause infections.

He advises patients to be careful and question procedures whose effects have not been proven.