SINGAPORE – Cord blood stored with Cordlife Group was the hope that Mr Tan S.Y., who has a 15-year-old son with a rare blood disorder, was counting on.
But those hopes could be dashed as the cord blood stored with the company could have been damaged due to improper storage.
On Nov 30, the Ministry of Health (MOH) revealed that Cordlife Group had exposed cryopreserved cord blood units at suboptimal temperatures, damaging the cord blood units belonging to at least 2,150 clients and rendering them unsuitable for stem cell transplant purposes.
Investigations are ongoing, and MOH will consider further enforcement action, including imposing financial penalties or prosecution.
Cord blood is the blood that remains in the umbilical cord and placenta after a baby is born.
It is a rich source of haematopoietic stem cells, which may be used in stem cell transplants to treat blood diseases and some cancers. Parents usually bank cord blood as a form of insurance, in case their children develop diseases later in life.
Cordlife Group charges a one-time upfront initial payment, and a $250 annual fee for those between the ages of one and 20 for storage.
Mr Tan, who declined to give his full name, has four children between the ages of seven and 15, and he said he spent at least $8,000 storing cord blood for all of them.
His eldest son suffers from Fanconi anaemia, an inherited condition that causes the bone marrow to fail and puts sufferers at a higher risk of cancer.
He could be due for a bone marrow transplant in 2024 if his condition worsens, and Mr Tan was hoping to tap his 11-year-old son’s cord blood for the procedure. The younger boy is a proven bone marrow match for his brother.
“For us, this (news) is really distressing because we are not storing cord blood just in case. We will really need it when the time comes,” said Mr Tan, 46, who is self-employed.
His 15-year-old son sees a haematologist at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital every three months. During his most recent appointment on Nov 28, doctors told his parents to be mentally prepared as he might need a bone marrow transplant in 2024.
If the cord blood is no longer viable, Mr Tan’s 11-year-old son might need to undergo a medical procedure to donate his bone marrow to the older boy. He is the only one in the family who has been tested, and has a bone marrow match.
“Some children’s lives depend on (the banked cord blood). The fact that there is a possibility that such security that could help a child’s life is taken away is very scary,” said Mr Tan.
Other parents The Straits Times spoke to said they do not need to tap the cord blood they have banked with Cordlife Group for now.
But they added that the company has not been clear in its communications with customers, as e-mails sent to them were vague.
Some are still confused about whether they are among those whose cord blood units were damaged.
Madam Ong, who declined to give her full name and age, said she received an e-mail from Cordlife Group at about 1am on Dec 1.
She had stored the cord blood of her two children, whose ages she declined to reveal, since around 2000.
The e-mail she received referenced only one of her children, and even so, did not clearly state if the cord blood unit was affected, she said.
In a copy of Cordlife’s e-mail sent to customers which The Straits Times saw, the company stated that it had detected irregular temperature readings in seven of its cryogenic storage tanks in Singapore.
Investigations are ongoing for the remaining six storage tanks containing approximately 17,300 CBUs that belong to an estimated 17,050 clients.
Cordlife has 22 storage tanks for cord blood units.
Madam Wong said: “My concern is, besides the seven tanks (with irregular temperature readings), the other 15 tanks, are they confirmed to be in good condition? I’m very sceptical already.”
In response to queries from The Straits Times, Cordlife Group’s group chief executive officer Tan Poh Lan said that the other 15 tanks were not affected by this. However, as an additional measure, the company is initiating viability testing of the donated cord blood samples stored in all tanks. All customers will be updated on this progress in due course.
Madam Ong also wanted to know if Cordlife Group would help assist in transferring cord blood to another bank.
In response, Ms Tan said: “Moving cord blood units from one location to another is not recommended because this could potentially affect stem cells.
“Furthermore, if clients continue to store with Cordlife Singapore, we will be able to continue to honour the commitments in the service agreement that we signed with them. However, if they insist on transferring, we will assist them in completing the transfer.”
A 47-year-old engineer who wanted to be known only as Mr Edmund P. had stored his only son’s cord blood with Cordlife Group since 2014, and paid $6,400 for a 21-year package.
Cord blood needs to be stored at below minus 150 deg C. But a member of the public alerted MOH that cord blood units at Cordlife Group had been exposed to temperatures of above 0 deg C. Audits subsequently followed.
While MOH did not reveal in its media statement what temperatures the affected cord blood units had been exposed to, it said they were above acceptable limits.
“I pay a premium for (Cordlife Group) to cryogenically store the cord blood... But if the audits reveal that they store it above acceptable temperatures, it is a betrayal of trust and goes against what (the) company stands for,” said Mr P.
“I don’t need to buy a policy, I might as well put the cord blood in my fridge,” he added.
Mrs Sharon Sim, 40, a civil servant, said she has spent around $20,000 storing cord blood of her two children, who were born in 2018 and 2022.
She wants the company to address what recourse they have for affected clients.
Following the news, Cordlife Group had said it would continue to store damaged cord blood units for clients until the child turns 21, as the cord blood could still be valuable in the light of developments in the field of cell and gene therapy. All future storage fees for these clients will also be waived, it added.
Said Mrs Sim: “It doesn’t make sense to me… The cord blood is damaged at this current juncture, we can only get so hopeful for better technology. If technology doesn’t get there, how then?”
On top of a refund, she also hopes that the company will offer clients compensation.
“You can only collect cord blood once, you can’t get it back,” said Mrs Sim.