Stem Cell Therapy in India: A Potential Game Changer in Disease Treatment

Stem Cells (SC) offer an incredible potential to instill a new lease of life virtually to any organ of the human body, bringing them back to the pre-disease state through its own biological repair mechanism. Intensive research initiatives are on across the world to harness this unique possibility that will be able to successfully address a plethora of serious and chronic ailments for mankind. The good news is, the global scientific community is taking rapid strides in understanding the complex stem cell biology to give shape to a game changing medical treatment blue print for tomorrow.

Capturing one such pursuit, on February 21, 2017, well-reputed British news daily – ‘The Telegraph’, reported the outcome of a path-breaking medical study for freezing the progression of yet another complex and crippling ailment – Multiple Sclerosis (MS). This research followed a unique SC transplantation process. Intriguingly, both such diseases and the treatment are not generally much talked about, particularly in India. If done, it would increase public awareness and help many patients fetch greater benefits from the available and approved SC therapy in the country. Probably, considering the unfathomable scope of the body’s own repairing toolbox with SC, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reportedly called on Indian biologists to motivate school children for pursuing a career in stem cell research.

Let me now go back for a moment to Multiple Sclerosis (MS) as I am aware of this this disease condition rather closely. One of our close family friends who was a very senior official in one of the top multinational corporations of the world, had to give up his job prematurely being a victim to this serious illness. In that sense, this particular news item rekindles a new hope for many to look for a better quality of life while managing many other diseases of such kind, all over the world, including India.

‘The Telegraph’ reported: in so far, the largest long-term follow-up of SC transplantation treatment study of MS, which was spearheaded by Imperial College London, established that 46 per cent of patients who underwent this treatment did not suffer a worsening of their condition for five years. The treatment works by destroying the immune cells responsible for attacking the nervous system. This is indeed a very significant development in the space of medical research.

This new treatment, called autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (AHSCT), was given to patients with advanced forms of MS who had failed to respond to other medications. However, the researchers noted that the nature of the treatment, which involves aggressive chemotherapy, carried “significant risks”.

It’s worth recapitulating here that MS is caused by the immune system malfunctioning and mistakenly attacking nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, leading to problems with movement, vision, balance and speech. It’s a lifelong condition and often causes serious disability, with no cure still in sight. The disease is most commonly diagnosed in people in their 20s and 30s, although it can develop at any age.

A new hope with a game changing potential:

The above study of SC transplantation conducted by Imperial College London in MS, is just a recent example, among scores of major steps being taken in this frontier of medical science in preparation of a decisive battle against many more life-threatening and serious debilitating diseases.

No doubt that various treatments involving stem cells are generally considered a novel and rapidly advancing medical technology. However, in a small number of developed countries, such as the United States (US), a number medical procedures with stem cells are being practiced since around last three decades. Bone marrow transplant is the most widely used stem-cell therapy in this area, which was first performed in 1968.

According to California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) and various other medical literature, SC treatment has the game changing potential for successful use to:

  • Replace neurons damaged by spinal cord injury, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or other neurological problems
  • Produce insulin that could treat people with diabetes and heart muscle cells that could repair damage after a heart attack, or
  • Replace virtually any tissue or organ that is injured or diseased

Thus, stem cells offer limitless possibilities, such as tissue growth of vital organs like liver, pancreas. Today there are many diseases for which no effective treatment still exists, besides giving symptomatic relief, such as Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, severe burn, spinal cord injury. There is a host of other diseases, including several chronic ailments, such as diabetes, heart ailments, rheumatoid arthritis, or some types of cancer, which can’t just be reversed, however, could be managed with a lifelong treatment. For most of these diseases, and several others involving tissue degeneration, SC therapy has the potential to be a huge life and a game changer. It may involve, besides patients, several industries, including pharmaceuticals and biotech sectors.

Major stem cell sources and some key milestones:

Medical scientists and researchers have conclusively established that stem cells are the master cells of any human body. These are undifferentiated cells of the same lineage, retaining the ability to divide throughout life and grow into any one of the body’s more than 200 cell types. Some of the major sources of stem cells in the human body are bone marrow, cord blood, embryonic cells, dental pulp and menstrual blood.

As captured by ‘ExploreStemCells’ of UK, some key events in stem cell research include:

  • 1978: Stem cells were discovered in human cord blood
  • 1981: First in vitro stem cell line developed from mice
  • 1988: Embryonic stem cell lines created from a hamster
  • 1995: First embryonic stem cell line derived from a primate
  • 1997: Cloned lamb from stem cells
  • 1997: Leukemia origin found as hematopoietic stem cell, indicating possible proof of cancer stem cells
  • 1998: University of Wisconsin isolated cells from the inner cell mass of early embryos and developed the first embryonic stem cell lines.
  • 1998: Johns Hopkins University derived germ cells from cells in foetal gonad tissue; pluripotent stem cell lines were developed from both sources.
  • 1999 and 2000: Scientists discovered that manipulating adult mouse tissues could produce different cell types. This meant that cells from bone marrow could produce nerve or liver cells and cells in the brain could also yield other cell types.

All these discoveries were exciting for rapid progress in the field of stem cell research, along with the promise of greater scientific control over stem cell differentiation and proliferation. Currently, many more research studies are underway in globally acclaimed institutions and other boutique laboratories exploring the possibility of wide scale use of SC therapy, even in the treatment of several chronic diseases, including diabetes and heart disorders.

A controversy:

The controversy related to SC research mainly involves Embryonic Stem Cells (ESC) and raises several difficult questions for a speedy resolution. As articulated by the ‘Genetic Science Learning Centre’ of the University of Utah, these are mainly:

  • Does life begin at fertilization, in the womb, or at birth?
  • Is a human embryo equivalent to a human child?
  • Does a human embryo have any rights?
  • Can destruction of a single embryo be justified to provide a cure for a countless number of patients?
  • Since ESC can grow indefinitely in a dish and can, in theory, still grow into a human being, is the embryo really destroyed?

However, in 2006 scientists learned how to stimulate a patient’s own cells to behave like embryonic stem cells. These cells are reducing the need for human embryos in research and revealing exciting new possibilities for stem cell therapies, according to this Centre.

Stem cell research in India:

India has pursued SC research since over a couple decades reasonably supported by the Government, especially the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), besides several remarkable initiatives from the private sector. Ethical guidelines in this regard are also in place, so also are the National Guidelines for Stem Cell Research in India. These guidelines are aimed at obtaining licenses from the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI).

Further, in a major move to regulate and oversee the activities by streamlining SC research in the country, the Government has also set up an Institutional Committee for Stem Cell Research and Therapy (IC-SCRT) and the National Apex Committee for Stem Cell Research and Therapy (NAC-SCRT). This necessitates the researchers on human stem cells, both institutions and the individuals, to be registered with NAC-SCRT through IC-SCRT. To ensure that the concerned companies and individuals follow the National Guidelines, these committees will review, approve and monitor each research project in this area. It now calls for even greater focus from all other stakeholders to help accelerate growth of this niche segment of medical science for patients’ benefits.

SC transplantations using umbilical cord blood and bone marrow for treating neurological, hematological, hepatic and cardiac disorders are being pursued by some well-known medical institutions, such as, AIIMS, PGI Chandigarh, CMC Vellore, AFMC Pune, Manipal Hospital Bangalore. For example, AIIMS, reportedly, undertook a major multi-center trial to look at the role of stem cells in repairing tissue damaged during acute heart attacks, where other treatment process, including a cardiac bypass surgery fails to adequately improve the heart function. Similarly, Shankar Netralaya in Chennai has successfully carried out limbal stem cell transplantations for restoring vision to several patients.

That said, this is a cost intensive area of research, which involves expensive equipment, reagents and other consumables. Moreover, ensuring continuous training for SC researchers and clinicians also poses a major problem. Greater international collaboration in this area, and increasing number of Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) could accelerate the progress of India in this hugely promising area of medical science, reaping a rich harvest for a large patient population of the country.

Stem cell banking:

SC banking is a fast-developing area in this field, especially designed for SC therapy. As not many patients are not currently as much aware or interested in SC therapy as they ought to, it may not appear as an immediate requirement for many. However, an encouraging trend is fast catching up, especially within some enlightened persons, to have in a bank a large reserve of their own or their baby’s stem cells that would be available for any medical emergencies or more effective treatment options, in the future.

It assumes increasing importance because, as we age, illness and the natural process of aging could reduce the number of stem cells available to regenerate organs, muscles and bone. At that time, while treating a serious illness or a grave injury, a person may have fewer adult stem cells that have the collective power to make an effective healing response to SC therapy.

In that context, SC banking provides a great opportunity to store, multiply and utilize a newborn’s or even an adult person’s younger and healthy stem cells for SC therapy during any medical emergency, such as a serious accident or a crippling illness, at a later stage in life.

There are broadly the following two types of SC banking facilities are now available in India:

A. Cord blood stem cell banking:

This is type of SC banking is the process of collecting, processing, cryogenically freezing and preserving the ‘Cord blood’ that remains in the vein of the umbilical cord and placenta at the time of birth, for potential future medical use during SC therapy. Stems cells extracted from the umbilical cord blood have been shown to be more advantageous than those extracted from other sources such as bone marrow. These banked stem cells are considered as a perfect match for the lifetime of the donor baby, and for other family members, as well. This is significant as there exists a greater chance for success in a stem cell transplant between siblings than with unrelated donors and recipients.

B. Adult stem cell banking:

Some state-of-the-art adult stem cell banking services are either already available or in the process of coming up in many places of the world, including India. As an individual’s fat (adipose tissue) is an important source of adult stem cells, with the application of a high precision medical technology of separating, multiplying, and storing adult adipose tissue-derived mesenchymal stem cells for autologous use by physicians, ‘Adult stem cells are stored in these banks.

The good news is, increasing awareness in this area has now started prompting many parents, and also some adults to bank or store their own SC and the baby’s cord blood rich with a specific types of stem cells, that can be utilized, at a later date, in a variety of SC therapy while treating many life-threatening and debilitating diseases, if required.

Types of stem cell therapy:

There are two major types of SC therapies, and both are available in India:

  • Autologous stem cell therapy: uses the adult patient’s own stem cells obtained from the blood, bone marrow.
  • Allogenic stem cell therapy: uses donated stem cells, but faces chances of donor stem cell rejection.

As articulated in the revised stem cell guidelines, stem cells can’t be offered to patients in India as ‘therapy’ unless these are proven effective and safe supported by unequivocal clinical trial data and approved by the DCGI. Otherwise, these can be used only in ‘clinical trials’ as will be approved by the DCGI. The only exception to this is the use of haematopoietic (blood forming) stem cells for treating blood disorders, which is considered as ‘a proven therapy,’ according to available reports.

The Market – Global and India:

September 14, 2015 issue of ‘The Pharma Letter’ stated based on a recent report that the global stem cells market was valued at US$ 26.23 billion in 2013, and is estimated to be worth US$ 119.52 by 2019, registering at a Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 24.2 percent. Whereas, in India, the stem cell market is expected to be around US$ 600 million by 2017. Another report, titled ‘India Stem Cells Market Forecast & Opportunities, 2020’ of ‘Pharmaion’, states that stem cells market in India is expected to grow at a CAGR of over 28 percent during 2015 – 2020.

In terms of services offered, stem cells market in India has been segmented into two main categories, namely SC banking, and SC research. The latter dominated the market in 2014, and is likely to continue its dominance through 2020. Adult stem cells accounted for the majority share in India’s SC market in 2014, as a lot of research being carried out using adult stem cells, besides growing adult stem cell banking and other associated applications in therapeutics.

The major growth drivers for SC market are: increasing patient awareness, an increase in the approval for clinical trials in stem cell research, growing demand for stem cell banking services,

Government support, rising investments in research, and ascending trend of development for regenerative treatment to meet unmet medical needs.

The first stem cell based product approval in India:

On May 30, 2016, a Press Release of ‘Stempeutics Research’ of Bengaluru announced that for the first time in India, DCGI has granted limited approval for manufacturing and marketing of its allogeneic cell therapy product named Stempeucel® for the treatment of Buerger’s Disease – a rare and severe disease condition affecting the blood vessels of the legs, which finally may require amputation. Stempeucel® treatment is designed to enhance the body’s limited capability to restore blood flow in ischemic tissue by reducing inflammation and improving neovascularization. The prevalence of Buerger’s Disease is estimated to be 1,000,000 in India and two per 10,000 persons in the EU and US, as the release stated. Stempeutics Research’ is a company of Manipal Education & Medical Group and a Joint Venture with Cipla Group.

Conclusion:

Research on stem cells, across the world, is taking rapid strides. It has already demonstrated its healing power in changing many human lives either by significantly stalling the progression of several serious ailments, such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS), or reversing the disease conditions, such as serious damage to the heart caused by massive myocardial infarction.

An increasing number of stem cell banks coupled with growing public and private investments in stem cell research, positive narratives are getting scripted for this space in India. With rapidly growing middle class population and comparatively less stringent rules and regulations, India is emerging as a perfect destination for many more global and local stem cell banking companies. Consequently, the stem cell market in the country is expected to witness robust growth in the coming years.

However, only future research on stem cells will be able to unravel whether an Alzheimer’s victim will get back the stolen memory; a cancer patient won’t have to mentally prepare to die of cancer anytime soon, besides spending a fortune towards cancer therapy; an insulin dependent diabetic will no longer require insulin; an individual with damaged heart won’t have to continue with lifelong medication, and it goes on and on.

Nevertheless, if it does… and God willing – it will, ‘Stem Cell Therapy’ would not just be a life changer for many patients, it will be a game changer too for several others, including the pharma, biotech companies and many more within the healthcare sector. If any skeptic still asks, will it really happen? My counter question, in response, will be: Why not?… Why the hell not?

By: Tapan J. Ray  

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

 

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