Thursday, June 10, 2010

In the blood (Silkroad)

As founder and chief executive of Taiwan's first cord blood bank, Bionet's Chris Tsai has given families a chance to buy what he calls “family biological insurance.” Among the services his company offers is the extraction and preservation of stem cells from the umbilical cords of newborn babies.

“Rather than compensate with money, we preserve the raw materials for the treatments and therapies that can restore a person's health,” says Tsai, who has a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Minnesota in the United States.

Stem cells – from cord blood, cord tissue, dental pulp or, controversially, embryos – are having a revolutionary impact on medicine. “Ten years ago, I couldn't imagine that stem cells, gene therapy, genetic testing and gene modification could be so widely applied – to treat strokes, for cosmetic purposes, for hair growth and wound healing,” says Tsai, who in 2009 won a Benchmark Entrepreneur award from Ernst & Young.

Since it was founded in August 1999, Bionet has served more than 200,000 clients in Taiwan. About 60 units of stem cells have been retrieved so they could be used to treat the infants from which they came, close relatives or – in at least one case – a complete stranger.

Explaining what led him to found a biotechnology company, Tsai says: “When I was in college, one of my hobbies was analyzing technological and scientific trends.”

Tsai likens what he was doing to monitoring a tsunami as it forms in the middle of an ocean “and then trying to predict where the waves will hit.” Switching analogy, he notes that, “You have to jump on your surfboard just before the wave hits. If you do it too early, you just sit there. Too late and you miss the crest of the wave.”

Bionet now offers a prenatal test for Down syndrome that uses the mother's blood and which is both more accurate and less risky than amniocentesis, a procedure that removes fluid from the womb to check for abnormalities in a baby.

“We were the very first company in the world to introduce prenatal genetic testing for spinal muscular atrophy,” he says. “Until recently, muscular dystrophy was considered untreatable, but therapy using cord-tissue stem cells has shown promise.”

Tsai believes that, between them, cord blood, cord tissue and dental-pulp stem cells can deliver all the applications expected of embryonic stem cells.

This is the entire text of an interview that appeared in the June issue of Silkroad, Dragonair's inflight magazine.

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