DOHA, QATAR—Futuristic health technologies often first benefit patients in the U.S. and Europe. Now an ambitious plan backed by high-flying entrepreneur Richard Branson to start a national public-private cord blood bank in the Arab emirate of Qatar might help to ensure that the evolving science of regenerative medicine will also be able to find applications quickly within the Middle East.

The newly formed Virgin Health Bank will collect and store stem cells drawn from the umbilical cords of infants, with the permission of their mothers. A portion of those cells will be banked for that infant’s future use in the event of medical need, with the remainder going to a national public bank for research and assistance to any patient with a matching tissue type.

The company’s goal is to create a comprehensive source of stem cells that could be of particular use for treating people of Middle Eastern descent, whose tissue types are often underrepresented in the public tissue banks such as those in the U.S. and elsewhere. “This cord blood bank could end up being bigger than the U.K.’s bank quite quickly,” Branson noted at a press conference today marking the company’s inaugural board meeting in Qatar.

Stem cells from umbilical cord blood are highly prized for their ability to change into the cells of other tissues. They are nearly as versatile as embryonic stem cells—and far less controversial. Cord-blood stem cells have been used since 1988 to treat a wide variety of leukemias, thalassemias and other primarily blood-related illnesses.

The longer-term dream, however, is that the nascent technology of regenerative medicine might someday routinely use them to regrow diseased, damaged or missing tissues and organs. David Macauley, the CEO of Virgin Health Bank QSTP, cited the encouraging example last November of a woman in Spain whose diseased windpipe was replaced with one grown in the lab from her own cells.

Last week the U.K.-based Virgin Health Bank, a cord-blood service founded in 2007 by Branson and biotech entrepreneur Christopher Evans of Excalibur, announced that it was changing its name and relocating its headquarters to Doha as part of its new partnership with the Qatar Science & Technology Park. The QSTP, a massive complex of scientific research and educational facilities that formally inaugurated yesterday, is a linchpin of Qatar’s national strategy to transform itself into a world leader in health sciences and other disciplines by 2030.

Branson said today that the bank chose Qatar because “the government of Qatar and the queen in particular understood the importance of this and wanted it.” Evans said that the presence of facilities such as the Weill Cornell Medical College campus and the future Sidra Medical & Research Center (now under construction) in Qatar were also part of the country’s draw.

According to Macauley, the hope is that the Qatari program will serve as a model for the region, either by inspiring other national programs in the Middle East or by extending the reach of the Qatari one. “Obviously, a bank like this should be global and eventually will be global,” Branson remarked. “But we’ve got to get this one done first.”

The challenge will be convincing the people of Qatar—and later, the rest of the region—to participate in cord blood collection. Public education information is under development, Macauley said, adding that Islamic religious leaders had already issued a fatwa (legal pronouncement under shari’a law) approving of cord-blood collection and encouraging its use.

Evans affirmed that the cord blood bank would be operational within weeks or months. The cost to patients for storing cord blood was still under discussion, according to Hanan Al Kuwari, the managing director of the Hamad Medical Corporation, the largest nonprofit healthcare provider in Qatar and a partner in the new alliance. One possibility was that the government would underwrite the costs for Qatar’s people, she said.

All profits arising from the service, according to Eulian Roberts, QSTP’s managing director, would be reinvested back into healthcare charities. Officials of Virgin Health Bank QSTP declined to say how much investment might be involved altogether in the new venture. But Evans noted that $10 million had already been invested in the initial setup for the Qatari service.

Image by Steven Foley via iStockphoto