OTTAWA -- Manitoba cancer specialist Dr. Morel Rubinger would love to be able to tell a cancer patient who needs a stem-cell transplant that he has a very good chance of finding a donor.
Rubinger told the House of Commons health committee Tuesday he can't do that because Canada doesn't have a national cord-blood bank.
Such a bank, which stores stem-cell samples retrieved from umbilical cords, would do wonders in improving the chances of survival for patients with blood diseases such as leukemia.
The cells are fast becoming the preferred source for unrelated stem-cell transplants because the tissue match to the receiving patient doesn't have to be as exact, and patients often recover faster and face fewer complications.
Cord-blood banks also better represent the ethnic diversity of a nation, so patients are far more likely to find a compatible match from a donor who represents their ethnic background.
Canadian Blood Services has a bank of donated stem cells in its One Match program, which can be used for unrelated stem-cell donations. Canada can also draw from an international supply of 14 million potential donors. But Canada is one of the only G20 nations without a national cord-blood bank.
In 2007, provincial health ministers asked Canadian Blood Services to develop a plan for a national cord-blood bank. The provinces approved that plan last year.
CBS head Graham Sher said it would cost about $48 million over several years to establish a cord-blood bank with the minimum required 20,000 donated units. It would mainly use existing CBS infrastructure, with the donations collected at hospitals across the country stored in two separate labs.
Héma-Quebec, the CBS counterpart in Quebec, began collecting cord blood in 2004 and has spent $20 million since then collecting 5,000 units. It is the only Health Canada-approved public cord-blood bank in Canada.
The Alberta cord-blood bank is slightly older, but has yet to be inspected by Health Canada. There are also 10 private cord-blood banks in Canada that collect and store cord blood for a fee. It is usually kept for the exclusive use of individual families.
Manitoba Health Minister Theresa Oswald said Tuesday the first annual contribution from Manitoba would be about $250,000. "It's not something that would be out of reach for us."
She said deputy health ministers will meet with CBS officials next month to "drill down" on some of the budget issues.
Oswald noted the long-term impact may be cost-neutral to the provinces, in part because the cost of importing cord-blood donations from outside the country is so significant.
Dr. Donna Wall, director of the Manitoba Blood and Marrow Transplant Program, said one unit of imported cord blood costs between $20,000 and $42,000, depending on the source. Some adult patients need two units.
In 2008, among 462 stem-cell transplants done in Canada, 179 were unrelated donors, including cord blood.