HÉMA-QUÉBEC and Sainte-Justine join forces to launch a public umbilical cord blood bank program in Québec

Montréal, January 29, 2003 - Héma-Québec and the Centre hospitalier universitaire mère-enfant Sainte-Justine today announced preparations for a public umbilical cord blood bank program in Québec. Umbilical cord blood can be used in place of conventional bone marrow transplants in patients with fatal illnesses. The goal of the program is to provide Québec children, including those from various ethnic populations, awaiting bone marrow transplants with increased accessibility to cord blood. This will be the first and only public umbilical cord blood bank in Québec.

The launch of this program is planned for fall 2003. Blood from umbilical cords will be collected at Sainte-Justine and St. Mary's Hospitals, with the consent of mothers who give birth at either of the two institutions, then tested at Héma-Québec for its safety and quality. If the cord blood sample meets standards, Héma-Québec will freeze it, using techniques that will preserve its properties for hematopoietic reconstitution for several years. Cord blood will therefore become available, on demand, for potential cord blood transplant candidates at Sainte-Justine. A sample that is not acceptable for a transplant will be stored at Sainte-Justine for research purposes, if consent is granted.

The public umbilical cord blood bank will provide greater access to a type of stem cell other than that of bone marrow, for which finding a match between donor and recipient is often long and difficult (compatibility between two unrelated individuals varies from 1 in 450 to more than 1 in 750,000). This bank is complementary to the registry of non-related bone marrow donors. Rich in blood stem cells, cord blood can replace the diseased bone marrow cells of a child with a malignant blood disorder for which the chances of recovery through conventional treatment are low.

More non-related transplants
The Director of Sainte-Justine's bone marrow transplant program, Dr. Martin Champagne, a hematologist-oncologist, is pleased that a greater number of his patients will be able to benefit from a treatment that could save their lives. "In cases of leukemia, immunodeficiency or severe anemia, an umbilical cord blood transplant is an innovative and beneficial therapeutic option, particularly for those of our young patients for whom a bone marrow donor cannot be found. What's more, the biological properties of cord blood will enable us to perform more non-related transplants, due to the immaturity of these cells, which require a lesser degree of compatibility between the donor and recipient." The bone marrow transplant team at Sainte-Justine has performed 38 transplants of this type since 1996. To date, close to 2,000 cord blood transplants have been performed on children and there are 40 public umbilical cord blood banks in the world.

Partnership of expertise unique to Québec
For Dr. Lucie Poitras, Director of Professional Services at Sainte-Justine, the hospital's partnership with Héma-Québec represents a pioneering solution that will benefit children: "Sainte-Justine's physicians will provide the expertise for the clinical and research components of the program. The hospital's expertise in this field is renowned throughout Canada. In terms of research, it will particularly enable the study of stem cells and their methods of storage, as well as the development of cord blood use for other therapeutic purposes."

Dr. Francine Décary, Executive Director of Héma-Québec, elaborated on the scope of the project: "Over the years, Héma-Québec has acquired advanced expertise in manufacturing blood products. Héma-Québec, which will be in charge of the public umbilical cord blood bank, is proud to work with Sainte-Justine in making this major project a reality. Héma-Québec will also be able to count on St. Mary's Hospital, which will contribute to the clinical collection of cord blood in the Côte-des-Neiges borough. Héma-Québec's goal is to provide all Québeckers with extremely safe, quality products."

The launch of such a program in Québec became necessary in order to allow patients to benefit from the expertise of each partner. Indeed, the harmonization of the partners' efforts will enable them to better meet future objectives.

Benefits of umbilical cord blood
Like bone marrow, umbilical cord blood is rich in stem cells (hematopoietic cells), which produce blood cells in the human body. Compared to bone marrow, cord blood cells are more immunologically immature, thereby necessitating a lesser degree of compatibility between donor and recipient, which facilitates matching and thus increases the number of non-related umbilical cord blood transplants that can be performed. Cord blood also offers other significant advantages: it contains fewer agents of infection and, when transplanted, is less likely to be rejected.

Cord blood is collected from the umbilical cord once it is cut, after the child is born. This technique is less invasive than for bone marrow, and is without risk to the mother or child, who no longer needs it for development. If blood is not collected from the cord, it is discarded as biomedical waste, as is the placenta.

Héma-Québec's mission is to efficiently provide adequate quantities of safe, top-quality blood components and substitutes to meet the needs of all Quebeckers, as well as to provide and develop expertise and services, along with specialized and innovative products, in the fields of transfusion medicine and human tissue transplantation.

The mission of the Centre hospitalier universitaire mère-enfant Sainte-Justine is to offer children, adolescents and mothers care that ranks with the best in the world. The institution also conducts advanced research in all fields of mother and child health. The promotion of health and the training of physicians and other health care professionals at the university level also form part of its mandate.