Just the last week, on December 19, 2014, international media broke the news of regulatory approval of the first stem cell treatment by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
The Agency reportedly has recommended an Orphan Drug – Holoclar of the Italian pharmaceutical company Chiesi Farmaceutici S.p.A for the treatment of moderate-to-severe Limbal Stem Cell Deficiency (LSCD) caused due to physical or chemical burns to the eyes in adults. LSCD can lead to blindness, where Holocar works in around 80 percent of cases.
The EMA decision to approve Holoclar will now be sent to the European Commission for market authorization.
As reported, this new generation treatment takes a small sample of the patients’ healthy cornea, removes the stem cells and grows them until there are sufficient numbers to put back into the eye. The cells themselves then repair the damage.
Experts consider this development as very significant step forward, as stem-cell therapies are now being tried mostly in the laboratory environment and clinical trials.
Treatment with Stem Cells – A new paradigm:
A stem cell is defined as an undifferentiated cell of a multicellular organism that is capable of giving rise to indefinitely more cells of the same type, and from which certain other kinds of cell arise by differentiation.
Stem cells are, therefore, immature cells that can be induced to transform into tissue or organ-specific cells and are classified as per their source, such as Embryonic Stem Cells (ES) from early human embryos, fetal stem cells from aborted fetus; adult stem cells from tissues, skin and bone marrow; cord blood cells from umbilical cord and even fatty tissues.
In human developmental biology, extensive scientific research over many years has led to the discovery of human stem cells.
This terminology is generally used for new medical advances in which an understanding of the human genome allows the use of the body’s own mechanism to heal it. This may include new pharmaceuticals and the ability to create new cells that could be implanted into patients to replace diseased or missing tissues.
The science of ‘Regenerative Medicine’ is increasingly being considered as an emerging medical space aimed at the treatment of those diseases that are usually classified as degenerative, incurable and irreversible. As it appears today, this science would unfold a new paradigm, where patients can expect cure for many serious ailments, such as, spinal injuries, heart disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s disease and even diabetes, besides many others.
Some promising developments:
Besides the recently EMA approved new treatment, as mentioned above, examples of just a few more promising developments in research with the stem cells, are as follows:
- Possible cure for Type 1 diabetes:
According to an international report of October 9, 2014, for the first time, after 23 years of research, Harvard University has been able to manufacture millions of beta cells required for transplantation. It could mean a cure for diabetes and the end of daily insulin injections for patients living with Type 1 diabetes. Around 10 per cent of all diabetes is Type 1, but it is the most common type of childhood diabetes.
The report indicated, the stem cell-derived beta cells are presently undergoing trials in animal models, including non-human primates, where they are still producing insulin after several months.
Another report of April 2014 indicates that for the first time, scientists have successfully replaced the damaged DNA of a type 1 diabetes sufferer with the healthy genetic material of an infant donor. When these cells are injected back into the diabetic patient, it is expected that they will begin to produce insulin on their own.
- Transplant of embryonic human stem cells on patients with macular degeneration partially restored vision:
Another study published in ‘The Lancet’ in October 2014 stated that scientists in the United States have announced that single transplant of stem cells has helped restore the sight of patients suffering from incurable forms of blindness due to Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD). Currently no effective treatments exist for this eye disorder, which can cause complete blindness due to the loss of light-receiving photoreceptor cells in the retina.
To recreate a type of cell in the retina that supports those photoreceptors, the new treatment uses stem cells derived from embryos that are only a few days old and have the ability to develop into any kind of tissue in the body. However, the transplants have proved controversial because they use stem cells derived from spare human embryos left over from IVF treatment.
- A cure for heart failure could be just a few years away:
Yet another international report of May 01, 2014 states, by injecting human stem cells into the organs of macaque monkeys, scientists have been able to regenerate their damaged hearts by up to 40 per cent in just a few weeks. Thus, it appears now that a cure for heart failure could be just a few years away and would mean that even people who are “bed-bound” with heart failure could be “up and about” again within a few weeks.
As on date, the heart muscle cannot be repaired, making people with severe heart failure necessarily wait for heart transplant. Of course, if the patients are willing and can afford so.
Debate around stem cell research:
Like many other research areas involving biological science, a raging debate has also commenced globally on several sociopolitical, cultural and ethical issues involving the use of stem cells as therapy.
Many clinical research related issues too are now surfacing on the use of human embryos, manipulations and modifications in stem cells research.
Apprehension of misuse, especially through cloning, had prompted many governments, India included, to ban reproductive cloning, keeping therapeutic cloning open for research.
However, arriving at a broader consensus in this area does not seem to be an insurmountable problem, in any case, as things stand today.
Research on stem cells and regenerative medicine in India:
Though it may sound almost unbelievable, India is now considered to be in the forefront of stem cells research and its use in a limited manner.
Indian Government under Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) has already set up a number of stem cell research institutions across the country. These institutions have already commenced valuable research in this area. DBT had granted more than Rs 300 Crore over the previous five years to be used in basic and applied research in stem cell technology.
According to one August 2014 report from ‘Business Insider’, several stem cells research initiatives are ongoing both in public and the private sectors in India.
A few examples, as reported, are as follows:
- The National Centre for Cell Research (NCCR), Pune, has worked on stem cell trans differentiation into pancreatic islets.
- Research at All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) and Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education & Research (PGIMER), is ongoing on retinal degeneration and stroke.
- National Institute of Immunohematology (NIIH) has been able to differentiate umbilical cord-derived mesenchymal stem cells into cardiomyocytes or cardiac muscles.
- The National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore, part of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, also works closely with the government on stem cells research.
- The Government of India had set up The Centre for Stem Cell Research (CSCR) in 2008 in collaboration with Christian Medical College, Vellore, with the intention of using stem cell science for understanding human diseases and development of stem cell-based therapies. Interestingly, it also runs a training program for scientists and students of stem cell research. CSCR will also carry out clinical trials with stem cells produced under current good manufacturing practice (GMP) conditions.
- Reliance Life Sciences obtained permission to use on large-scale stem cells sourced from the patient’s body for therapy.
- The LV Prasad Eye Institute, Hyderabad, has developed corneal limbal stem cells.
- Sankara Nethralaya Stem Cell Research Center, Chennai, is working on retinal and corneal stem cell application and immunoregulatory properties of stem cells.
- Hospitals such as Dr KM Cherian’s research facility in Medville have used stem cells from bone marrow to help regenerate the heart.
Besides, Indian rules and law permit the usage of one’s own banked stem cells. Several storage facilities such as Life Cell, Reliance Life Sciences, Cryobanks International and Stemade for dental stem cell storage have also come up.
Stem cells research guidelines in India:
In India, ICMR-DBT Guidelines for Stem Cell Research are in place. These guidelines have been laid down to ensure that research with human stem cells is conducted in a responsible and ethically sensitive manner and complies with all regulatory requirements pertaining to biomedical research in general and stem cell research in particular.
Since it is a rapidly evolving field of science, the recommendations may change with time.
All types of research and clinical trials in stem cells would require to be registered with and obtain prior permission and approval of the National Apex Committee (NAC) and the Institutional Committee (IC-SCRT) for Stem Cell Research.
It is notably important that the guidelines categorically states that only stem cell research, basic and translational, is permitted but not therapy.
NAC- IC-SCRT permits therapy usage in patients only through approved and fully monitored clinical trials. Stem cells cannot be used as therapy without appropriate regulatory approvals in India.
Currently, most treatments for non-infectious chronic ailments only delay the disease progression and associated complications. There is virtually no cure for most of these diseases, which include, spinal injuries, heart diseases, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s disease or even hypertension, asthma or diabetes.
Regenerative Medicine would not just bring down the cost of healthcare and the disease burden significantly, but would also help increasing the economic productivity of a nation considerably.
Currently, medical research of the highest order in this area is mostly being conducted by various academia of global repute along with the industry. This emerging trend sends a clear signal that ‘Regenerative Medicine’ is now strongly poised to give an altogether new shape to the future of global healthcare, adding unique dimensions.
Consequential paradigm shift in the field of healthcare, I reckon, would herald the dawn of a brand new era, setting in place a whole new commercial ball game, the like of which the world has never witnessed, ever before.
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.