There is a chance that not only will stem cell therapy enter the mainstream, but that IFAs will be advising on it. As a pilot opens in the UK, Sue Wilkinson outlines the case.
Time waits for no man, and no statement is more apt than where medicine is concerned. Critical illness (CI) insurance first came about to fill a huge gap in the protection market, and rapidly grew into one of the most valuable products in the UK, supporting clients who were arguably at a most vulnerable stage of their lives, both medically and financially.
Many changes were swift to follow. Marius Barnard, the founder of CI insurance was challenged with: ‘Why is there no standardisation of CI definitions?’ as a reason for not advising. But we now find it hard to remember when that time was, as standardisation of definitions quickly became ‘the norm’.
When a certain protection provider introduced ‘Progressive Supranuclear Palsy’ as a CI condition, it was met with snorts of derision from their competitors who simply would not or chose not to see its value.
Then began ‘the race’ to cover more conditions than the next competitor which, at the last count, stands at 160, meaning that the cover is arguably more comprehensive, more apt (with partial/proportionate payments), and is attempting to keep up with medical science.
So what of private medical insurance (PMI)? Some of the biggest players have historically been slow in keeping up in the very field they claimed to be experts in.
Their mantra appears to be, ‘We’ve been here a long time, so we don’t need to keep pace, let alone innovate.’ So complimentary and alternative therapies (now not only proven, but again, the norm) remained without sufficient worth in their reckoning until consumer demand and their more forward-thinking competitors forced their hand.
Stem cell safety net
So, in the current market of PMI, and protection, what is there of notable worth? What medical innovation simply cannot be ignored, and therefore what customer demand may force the hand of the specialist insurance provider and that of the intermediary?
But, most of all, what will potentially provide the biggest medical safety net for the client, and help to endorse the true value of independent advice?
Welcome to a whole new world of regenerative stem cell therapy. Let us first dispel the myth of its newness. Stem cell therapy is not new. For more than 50 years, living cells have been stored in temperatures so cold, they are maintained in a state of suspended animation, effectively halting the ageing process.
These cells have later been thawed without any loss of functionality. The cryopreservation techniques used stops the ageing process and keeps viable functional cells safe for future use.
Just one example of where this has worked is when 50-year-old frozen sperm successfully fertilised a 30-year-old frozen egg.
Medical treatments once considered to be science fiction, are now science fact. The first IVF or test tube baby experiment which was met with much cynicism, this year celebrates her 36th birthday. Today, more than five million babies have been born this way.
When Marius Barnard and his brother Christian performed the first heart transplant in 1967, what would they have made of the fact that more than 3,500 heart transplants would now be carried out each year as standard procedure?
New job for tooth fairy
Stem cells fall into two categories: embryonic and post natal. Embryonic, as the term implies, can raise moral and religious objections. The process although indisputably having great life-saving value, is still an invasive medical procedure.
However, in 2000, stem cells were discovered in the dental pulp of teeth. Not only were the mesenchymal stem cells discovered in teeth found to be more prolific than other types of stem cells, they have a much wider therapeutic application, and most significantly are harvested from children’s milk teeth: teeth that have fallen out naturally; teeth that are otherwise discarded, tidied away into a trinket box or left for the tooth fairy.
In the year 2006 alone, 50,000 bone marrow transplants were carried out using stem cell therapy. Yet, currently, there is only a one in 50,000 chance of getting a match from a public stem cell bank. The Harris Review predicts that one in three people will need stem cell therapy in their lifetime.
With autologous stem cell banking (banking your own cells for your own use) the chance of rejection by the immune system is minimalised or completely eradicated.
Dental stem cells in particular have the potential to repair damaged tissue in heart attacks, can produce insulin secreting cells to cure diabetes, can form new bone and cartilage, can help Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, motor neurone disease, and could even grow new organs.
Conditions in the past which caused irreparable damage, could now be repaired. A young boy has recently received the transplant of a new trachea grown from his own stem cells.
Stem cell therapy is not just about critical and serious illness. They can also be used for the body’s natural wear and tear as we age (ie, cartilage in the joints) and even for cosmetic surgery.
Stem cells are better the younger they are taken and stored. Dental stem cells are the best source of cells, particularly when taken from milk teeth or wisdom teeth in young adults, and the dental cells are extracted after the child’s tooth has fallen out naturally.
As the stem cells stored from children’s teeth are stored at a very young age, they could be banked for their entire lifetime until such a time that they may be needed.
The process for an adviser’s client is simple. They enrol the child, and a collection kit is sent to them. The tooth falls out, they place it in cow’s milk in the special container provided and it is collected.
It is then that the scientific process starts. The cellular material is removed from the tooth, the stem cells are extracted, tested, and are stored until the time that they may be needed.
The cells are kept in two separate units, and we make there is a guarantee given that when they are needed, they will be viable, and they will be free from microbial contamination.
So, to advise or not to advise? Likewise to bank ones child’s stem cells should be a matter of choice.
The client could be made aware that there is a choice over and above discarding their child’s milk tooth. The choice to store their child’s cells is theirs, but there may come a time when they thank you, the person who informed them of the life-saving potential of stem cell banking.
Sue Wilkinson is commercial manager of BioEden Europe