Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Stem Cells: The storehouse of potency and potentials

Bridging the gap between bench and bedside, stem cell research is showing promising results in clinical trials worldwide.

There is only one set of circumstances where man puts his effort, energy, time and money to get the less specialized, the less differentiated, the less evolved. And that is Stem Cell Research. Stem cells are the unspecialized cells with the potential to divide continuously to self-replenish and under certain circumstances can differentiate into specialized cells of characteristic phenotype and function. During embryonic stage and early periods of growth, embryonic stem cells divide and differentiate to form the entire body of the organism with all its extremely intricate organ systems. Whereas in the adult organism, somatic stem cells maintain an internal repair mechanism by constantly replenishing and replacing aging cells. Scientific research is gearing towards utilizing stem cells as an elixir for degenerative and autoimmune diseases. Under controlled conditions in laboratory, genetic reprogramming can generate pluripotency in differentiated cells (induced pluripotent cells; iPSCs) which have extensive medical and commercial prospects in drug therapeutics and stem cell therapeutics.

In the February of 2015, a stem cell based therapeutic product was approved for commercial marketing for the first time in the world as The European Medicines Agency approved Holocar for the treatment of blindness caused by limbal stem cell deficiency post physical or chemical burns. Boasting a struggle of 25 long years to bring this product from bench to bedside, researchers, industrialists and clinicians behind the scenes  have opened a wide arena of therapy and hope to common man. The International Society for Stem Cell research (ISSCR) consolidates stem cell research around the globe through updated publications, funding resources, annual meetings, international symposiums and the ‘Guidelines for Stem Cell science and Clinical Translation’. Clinical trials using bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, placental and mesenchymal stem cells for cardiac repair, neurodegenerative diseases, hematological disorders and autoimmune diseases is showing promising results worldwide. Stem Cell Technologies have an online tool for finding the stem cell clinical trials going on in hospitals for various diseases which will help patients to access the facilities under strict regulations. This is adapted from the clinical trial registry maintained by National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Growing at a rate of 30% per annum, the stem cell industry is expected to hit a turnover of $1.2 billion by 2017 worldwide. Forbes reports that the Indian industry is estimated to hold a significant proportion of this market with a worth of $600 million by then. Basic and translational research in this field is funded by funds worth more than three hundred crore rupees mobilized by Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) over the past seven years under the supervision of dedicated Task Force teams. But as the research in this field is still crawling in its bassinet, the use of stem cells for therapy in patients may pose grave risks with our relative ignorance about adverse effects. Stem cells, with their immense potential to divide and differentiate in the body, require close monitoring and extremely tight management conditions to be used in patients in a hospital set up. To curb the chances of malpractice in the field, ICMR Department of Health Research and DBT have revised and published the ‘National Guidelines for Stem Cell Research’ in 2013. These guidelines encourage stem cell research at basic and applied levels with adequate regulations but strictly prohibit stem cells for therapy other than the hematopoietic stem cells transplantation (HSCT) for hematological disorders in India. The National Apex Committee for Stem Cell Research and Therapy (NAC-SCRT) monitors the regulatory approvals for clinical trials involving stem cells. Numerous companies in private sector like Lifecell, Stemade (India) and Bioeden (U.S.) offer cord stem cell storage facilities in India at affordable costs today. Let us hope that the new generation, with the privilege of its own stored stem cells, gets the opportunity to address and contain diseases with the commendable progress in stem cell research.

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