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Thailand: The future home of stem cell research?

Yes, if a few companies and a lot of Thai parents get their way. Here's why.

A technician with the Thai StemLife clinic lowers a box containing thousands of infant’s stem cells into a freezing storage tub. More parents in Thailand are choosing to store their newborns’ umbilical cord blood, which is rich in stem cells. (Patrick Winn/GlobalPost)

BANGKOK — In a skyscraper high above Bangkok, a fingerprint scanner bleeps, glass doors slide open and female technicians enter a humming lab.

One unseals a cold storage tub marked “Thai StemLife,” sending white vapors billowing upwards. Another worker palms a small container filled with purplish goo. In swift choreography, a steel box is lifted from the tub and the container is inserted into its prescribed slot.

That goo is umbilical cord blood, rich in stem cells and siphoned out right after childbirth. The cord, and the blood inside, is typically tossed aside as biological waste.

But in Thailand, worlds away from the political din surrounding stem cells in America, more and more parents are choosing to bank the cord blood of their newborns to use, perhaps, in future medical treatments.

Thailand could be well-positioned to cash in on the trend, as the business of storing stem cells relies on two factors: high birth rates and a class of moneyed parents. Thailand, already a regional healthcare mecca, has both.

A handful of start-ups — Thai StemLife, Cyroviva Thailand, Cordlife and others — are now vying to store stem cells from the roughly 800,000 babies born each year in Thailand.

“You have to do this business in places where fertility rates are high,” said Kostas Papadopoulos, CEO of Thai StemLife, which is Thailand’s largest private stem cell bank. “In Singapore, people just don’t have sex enough. And even though purchasing power in Thailand isn’t as good as Europe, America or even North Asia, the fertility rate is quite good.”

So, it seems, are Thai StemLife’s prospects. Founded in 2005, the company became profitable in two years, Papadopoulos said.

With more than 3,300 stem cell samples already stored in its deep-freeze tanks, it boosted clients by 25 percent last year. The biobank charges nearly $3,700 for a lifetime of stem cell storage. “This year,” Papadopoulos said, “we’re looking at doubling (clients).”

The science behind stem cell treatments, though full of promise, is also steeped in confusion and mystique.