DAVOS, Switzerland – Sir Richard Branson will launch his most controversial business to date as he moves into stem-cell storage and the biotech sector, The Times has learned.
The Virgin-branded company will be launched next Thursday and is expected to offer parents the chance to put the umbilical blood of their newborn children into cold storage. Scientists believe that future advances in medical technology will use stem cells to cure diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer.
The move into stem-cell storage is part of a strategy that Branson is developing to invest in technologies of the future. He has already launched Virgin Galactic, which will take tourists into space, and is investing all the profits of Virgin Atlantic, his airline, in the development of environmentally friendly biofuels.
Stem-cell storage works by saving human blood from the placenta or umbilical cord after birth. This blood is rich in haematopoietic stem cells, which are capable of adapting in the body and replacing damaged or diseased cells. Stem cells taken from umbilical blood at birth have a much higher chance of being supported by the body than healthy cells imported from another donor. This type of treatment has been used for many years in bone marrow transplants for leukaemia sufferers, but scientists believe that medical advances will use stem cells to cure other cancers, as well as heart disease, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
Public cord storage is becoming more common, particularly in the U.S., but there is also a growing private industry taking advantage of the promise of these cures. However, the industry is extremely controversial because the chances of developing a disease that stem cells can cure, such as leukemia, is small while the new cures may never materialize. Some anti-abortion groups believe that any use of stem cells will lead to human cloning.
Private storage of stem cells is unlawful in France and Italy and is opposed by the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies, which is a European Commission body.
This has not stopped more than 11,000 families in the UK using stem-cell storage facilities. The services typically cost about £1,500 for collection of the blood and about £100 a year for cold storage. A number of celebrity parents are reported to have used these services including Thierry Henry, the Arsenal footballer, and Darcey Bussell, the dancer.
Virgin Group refused to comment on the launch but said that stem cells had been an area of interest for Branson for many years.
Pharmaceutical industry executives attending the World Economic Forum in Davos said that Branson’s move could be the prelude to developing a fully-fledged biotech business if he invested in the medicines associated with stem cells.
Branson is also in advanced talks to buy land in Macau to build a £1.5 billion casino resort.