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Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Planned Stem Cell Bank in Zambia (Guest Blog)

I wish to comment on the planned establishment of an umbilical cord blood stem cell bank in Zambia by Cryobank International of India.

Essentially, a “stem cell” is a ductile type of cell that can either naturally develop into most of the 220 types of cells of the human body—such as blood cells, heart cells, brain cells, and kidney cells—or be developed into most of such cells through manipulation.[1] The fun­gibility or non-specialized nature of stem cells provides consider­able therapeutic potential in that the cells can be “doctored” and used to replace damaged, infected or dead cells in a person’s body and restore his or her health.

In the ensuing paragraphs, let us consider the ethical debate asso­ciated with stem cell research, a useful caveat for Zambian law makers and researchers who are involved in contentious research projects, and the need for an effective mechanism for assessing the benefits and costs of such research projects.

The Ethical Debate:

While advances in human stem cell research have generated a great deal of excitement among researchers and op­timistic predictions about revolutionary advances in biomedicine, they have also sparked a highly contentious ethical debate.[2] Among poten­tial benefits of the research are new treatments and possible cures for debilitating diseases and injuries—including Parkinson’s and Alzheim­er’s diseases, diabetes, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, stroke, burns, spinal cord injuries, and some types of cancer.[3]

Ethical challenges associated with the research generally pertain to the source of the most promising categories of stem cells used—that is, “embryonic stem cells” derived from embryos that are between 5 and 7 days old, and “embryonic gem cells” derived from immature aborted foetuses. Basically, the extraction of stem cells from an embryo kills the embryo involved.

According to McDonald,[4] the ethical debate concerning the use of such stem cells boils down to three disparate arguments as follows:

(a) The embryos are genetically human and are potential human beings deserving of society’s full respect and protec­tion;

(b) The embryos are neither conscious nor self-aware, and are mere clusters of human cells with no independent ethical sta­tus; and

(c) The embryos are a part of the human life-cycle, part of the human story, and should, as such, be treated with respect in the same manner as a human corpse is treated.

Human stem cells can also be derived from the tissue of an adult, in which case the subject is generally left unharmed. Unfortunately, stem cells from an adult tissue are difficult to extract; moreover, they are limited in quantity, and appear to be less useful in facilitating revolutionary advances in bio­medicine.[5]

In recent years, the multi-potent-stem-cell-rich blood found in the umbilical cords of infants has proven useful in treating the same types of health problems as those treated using bone marrow stem cells and peripheral blood stem cells (PBSCs).[6] Since the umbilical cords are generally and traditionally discarded as a by-product of the birth process, umbilical cord blood stem cell transplants raise less ethical questions.

Besides, they are less prone to rejection by recipients than either bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells perhaps because the cells have not yet developed the features that can be recognized and attacked by the recipient’s immune system. And since umbilical cord blood lacks well-developed immune cells, there is less chance that the transplanted cells will attack the recipient’s body. Both the versatility and availability of umbilical cord blood stem cells, therefore, makes them a potent resource for transplant therapies.[7]

But where will the Indian company be obtaining the umbilical cord blood stem cells, and what if the sources of umbilical cord blood stem cells will eventually turn out to be aborted and/or miscarried human foetuses? And how are we going to ensure that some morally corrupt or deficient women in the country or across national borders will not use this as a “cash cow” by getting pregnant and later selling their foetuses to the envisaged stem cell bank for the extraction of umbilical cord blood stem cells?

I do not believe a blood disorder known as “Thallasemic condition” is common in Zambia to warrant the setting up of a “cord blood cell bank” in the country. I would, therefore, advise the government not to allow the setting up of such a facility in our beloved country, especially if there are no definite answers to the questions I have raised above.

While I see the potential for umbilical cord blood stem cells to provide a lasting cure to life-threatening genetic blood disorders, we should be wary of research endeavors which many Zambians would find morally repugnant—research which has the potential to promote abortions for the purpose of selling foetuses. We must, of course, advance the promise and cause of science and research, but we must do so in a way that honors and respects life.

We need to protect the dignity and integrity of human life! And we must guard against creating a market for human parts like umbilical cords in our country!

A Useful Caveat:

McDonald[8] has provided a useful caveat for bio­technology companies and researchers facing vexing challenges and dilemmas arising from contentious research endeavors like stem cell research; it may be paraphrased as follows: The opinions of people in the host nation or community shou­ld be seriously discerned, publicly discussed, and ultimately used as important inputs in the generation of a “definition of corporate ‘best practice’ or clinical ‘standard of care’.”

An Assessment Mechanism:

It is essential for transnational companies which are engaged in contentious scientific and/or technological research projects to embrace measures which their host countries may institute to evaluate the technical and economic viability of such projects, and “the societal dimension of [the] impacts”[9] of the projects. In other words, they need to participate actively in “technolo­gy assessments” which their host governments may introduce. Such asse­ssments are important because they can be used by national governments in many beneficial ways. For example, they can be used as:

(a) Sources of vital informa­tion needed in isolating envis­aged scienti­fic and technological research projects that need to be promoted, and those which need to be discouraged or prohib­ited altogether;

(b) Means of assess­ing and mini­mizing the potential negative impacts that may be associated with scientific and technologi­cal research pro­jects; and

(c) Vehicles for resolving the contentious moral and ethical issues and dilemmas that may be evoked by scientific discov­er­ies and technolo­gical break­throughs.

To be useful, technology assessments need to generate and provide suffi­cient and reliable information about a given scientif­ic and/or techno­logical project on such matters as the following:[10] (a) the technical and economic feasibility of the project; (b) its potential economic, social, and environ­men­tal effects; and (c) the potential risks and safety concerns associated with it.

Moreover, the assessments need to be administered by an agency that is akin to what Alvin Toff­ler has referred to as a “techno­logical ombuds­man,”[11] which can be created and cha­rged with the res­ponsi­bility for recei­ving, investigat­ing and, among a host of other things, acting on com­plaints per­taining to the irrespon­si­ble applica­tion of new scientific discoveries and techno­logical break­throughs.

If it is prudently managed, such an agency can enable a cou­ntry to create a positive and via­ble inter­face between society and scientific and tech­nological research endeavors.

Henry Kyambalesa
The guest author is the Founder and President of the Agenda for Change (AfC) party.

(The Zambian Economist encourages guest contributions from leading Zambian thinkers on matters relevant to national development. The purpose of these notes is to stimulate discussion and ensure logic and impartial critique plays a leading role in shaping public debate. See the special guests page for more information).
    [1] A definition adapted from Religious Tolerance, “Stem Cell Research: All Sides to the Dispute,”; and National Institute of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Stem Cells: A Primer,”, May 2000.
    [2] MacDonald, C., “Stem Cells: A Pluripotent Challenge,” http://www.stem­
    [3] Religious Tolerance, and National Institute of Health, op. cit.
    [4] McDonald, C., op. cit.
    [5] Religious Tolerance, op. cit.
    [6] The University of Utah: Genetic Science Learning Center, “Stem Cell Therapies Today,”, January 2011.
    [7] The University of Utah, ibid.
    [8] McDonald, C., op. cit.
    [9] See Hetman, F., “From Technology Assessment to an Integrated Per­spec­tive on Tech­nolo­gy,” in Srini­vasan, M., edi­tor, Tech­nology As­sess­ment and Devel­op­ment (New York: Praeg­er Pub­lish­ers, 1982), p. 37.
    [10] See Kyambalesa, H., Business Innova­tion and Competi­tive­ness in the Develop­ing World (Brookfie­ld, USA: Ashgate Publish­ing Company, 1993), p. 72.
    [11] See Toffler, A., Future Shock (New York: Random House, Inc., 1970), p. 442.


  1. There are very definite answers to the questions raised above:-

    Umbilical Cord Blood (a rich source of stem cells) can ONLY be collected after birth (at term). These are ADULT stem cells, not embryonic stem cells. Fetal cords would contain insufficient blood to make banking worthwhile.

    There are no ethical, moral or religious objections from ANY religious body about the use of umbilical cord blood. This is purely the banking of potentially life saving ADULT stem cells from a source (umbilical cord) that would otherwise be discarded as medical waste. .

    I suggest you check your facts again

    1. Compare the top cord blood banking companies here:

  2. Anonymous:

    How can they be ADULT stem cells when they are collected from infants (newly borns)?

    Your contribution does not address all the questions raised above. By the way, in my culture, umbilical cords are collected by parents for burial if birth is consummated at a hospital. If birth is consummated at a house, the umbilical cord is left on the baby until it falls off on its own and then buried.

  3. Anonymous:

    You have probably not sufficiently read the article. There is no where in this article where I have stated that "umbilical cord blood stem cells" are "embryonic stem cells." Read it carefully and then provide answers to the questions I have raised. Let us discuss the issues exhaustively. I will surely appreciate it. Kind regards.

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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