UK entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group, Sir Richard Branson, is moving into the biotechnology sector and has today launched a storage business that will let families bank stem cells from their child's umbilical cord.

Many scientists believe that future advances in medical technology will use stem cells to cure a number of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer, though the technique has attracted much publicity from groups who fear it is the first step to human cloning.

However, there is nothing underhand about the Virgin Health Bank, according to Sir Richard, who said that the business will split the donated cord blood in two, putting some into a national bank and the other half into private storage. Explaining this approach, he said that with dual banking, parents can access their child’s stem cells for the future possibilities of regenerative medicine, “and can also donate cells to anyone who needs them for treatments today, including their own family.”

He claimed that although “cord blood collection in many areas of the world is now common practice, in the UK there is still a misunderstanding of the different types of stem cells.” Richard continued. “We are dealing with adult stem cells, those taken from umbilical cord blood, which is normally discarded after a child is born. Using these cells as treatments presents no ethical issues and the benefits for patients today are widely accepted.”

Virgin noted that in the last 18 years, more than 7,000 patients have been treated with cord blood stem cells transplantations in over 150 countries and Sir Richard concluded that ”there is huge potential to be gained from the collection and storage of cord blood stem cells and I believe that Virgin can play a big part in helping fulfil that potential.”

His enthusiasm was shared by Colin McGuckin, Professor of Regenerative Medicine at the University of Newcastle, who said: “Advances in cord blood medicine around the world are amazing, with research teams turning the theoretical into reality. Cord blood therapies will become routine and we will save lives.”

It has been estimated that in the UK more than 11,000 families are 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.