The bank, which will draw donated newborn cord-blood samples from five hospitals in Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa and Brampton, Ont., was set up to provide a source of stem cells for Canadians across the country.
Two facilities — one in Edmonton and the other in Ottawa — will test, process and freeze individual units of cord blood, which can be stored indefinitely.
Canadian Blood Services has raised $12.5 million of the $48-million cost of running the program for the next eight years, with provincial and territorial governments (excluding Quebec, which has its own cord blood bank) picking up the balance.
Placental and umbilical cord blood are rich sources of blood-forming stem cells that can be used in the treatment of more than 80 diseases and disorders, including cancers like leukemia and lymphoma.
"Every day here in Canada, we have about 1,000 people who are looking for a stem cell transplant," Heidi Elmoazzen, director of the bank, said from Ottawa.
About 25 per cent find a suitable donor among family members. But 75 per cent must look for an unrelated adult donor whose bone marrow or peripheral blood provide a close tissue match to prevent rejection.
The majority of donors on these adult registries are Caucasian, so finding a match can be extremely challenging for people of certain ethnicities, said Elmoazzen.
"We have a lot of ethnic groups here in Canada that you don't find in the rest of the world, such as our First Nations, Metis and Inuit populations," she said. "And then we also have a lot of mixed marriages here in Canada, so you get a lot of unique ethnicity mixes."
Patients of mixed race, Caribbean black, African or Aboriginal descent "are very, very hard to match," she said.
Two of the hospitals, in particular — BC Women's in Vancouver and William Osler Health System's Brampton Civic Hospital northwest of Toronto — are on track to change that because of the populations they serve.
Joanne Flewwelling, executive vice-president of clinical services for William Osler, said the majority of the patients served by the hospital are of Asian or South Asian descent.
"That is what made us so attractive to Canadian Blood Services, because there is a challenge in general of having stem cells matched for patients, particularly for those that come from diverse ethnic backgrounds," she said.
Of the 900 cord blood samples donated by new mothers to date at the Brampton, Ont., hospital, about 75 per cent came from babies of non-Caucasian descent.
Dr. Jan Christilaw, president of BC Women's Hospital, said Vancouver and nearby areas are home to people of many ethnic backgrounds, in particular the Chinese- Canadian community, "which was very central to lobbying for this (cord blood bank) to come and for fundraising for it."
Many of the new mothers who deliver at the hospital are First Nations, so the donations of their newborns' cord blood would enrich the bank and ultimately help other indigenous Canadians in need of a stem-cell transplant.
B.C. is also home to populations of Sikhs and other South Asians, Vietnamese, Japanese and Filipinos.
"Some of the mixed racial groups are the hardest to find a match for," Christilaw said. "So the more diverse the bank is, the better the chance that if you really need cord-blood stem cells for any particular reason, you'll be able to find it."
Building a broad-based reservoir of cord blood will not only provide stem cells for current patients, but the bank will also be a source of these regenerative cells in the future when more is known about the extent of their powers to heal, she said.
"We said 80 diseases, but 10 years from now, we might be up to 500."
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