Indian biotech firms cash in on hope for tomorrow

Cashing in on a high birth rate and the enormous potential of stem-cell research, India’s biotechnology firms are coaxing more parents to bank blood from their newborn’s umbilical cord.

Bondita Bhattacharya (39), who is married to a software engineer, is among more than 4 000 Indian parents who have had the blood cells from their children frozen, to be revived if and when there is a scientific breakthrough.

Bhattacharya, whose baby was born last month, says she paid 60 000 rupees ($1 333) for the process, as she had “nothing to lose”.

“It is like taking an insurance policy. It is safe,” she says.
“In the future I am sure there will be a breakthrough in stem-cell research. They [scientists] may come out with a cure for diabetes or cancer. I will regret if I am not able to take advantage of that.”

Stem cells are master cells from which the body’s immune and blood system originate and which can develop into cells of any organ.

Blood that is extracted from the baby’s umbilical cord and placenta discarded after birth are loaded with stem cells, according to Dr Nalini Krishnan, medical adviser of LifeCell, a firm that deals in preserving cord blood.

These cells can help cure more than 75 serious ailments, she says.

“Collecting and preserving the baby’s cord-blood stem cells is a security blanket for your baby and immediate family members. It is effective in the treatment of leukaemia, anaemia, inherited disorders and several other deficiencies of the immune system,” Krishnan says.

“Lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, liver disorders and heart ailments can also be treated with stem cells,” she adds.

The two Indian companies that offer cord blood-cell banking—- LifeCell and Reliance Life Sciences—have a combined repository of more than 4 000 units, with Reliance dominating with 3 000 units.

“Our target is to get to 15 000 units by the end of next year and grow our presence from the current six cities to 25,” says Abhay Kumar, chief executive of LifeCell, which has a collaboration with Cyro-Cell International of the United States.

“We will be opening two banking centres outside India during the next year and [expect to] clock 10-billion rupees [$222-million] within the next five years,” Kumar says. LifeCell was set up a year ago. “The opportunity is big as there are 26-million births in India every year.”

Prasad Mangipudi, marketing vice-president of LifeCell, says the company follows “ethical standards” despite controversies surrounding the stem-cell research.

In December, South Korean investigators said the apparent landmark stem-cell research by cloning expert Hwang Woo-Suk had been faked, turning the one-time national hero into a disgraced fabricator.

Roopa Devi (26), a doctor who banked her son’s cord blood cells at LifeCell’s facility in southern city of Chennai a month ago, is not worried by the controversy.

Banking blood, she says, is the “best gift” a parent can give to their children.

“In today’s world, everybody needs a little bit of help to sail through life. Why should my son be denied that?” asks Devi. “I do not want to shut any options for my son. I know at present the research is shrouded in a bit of controversy. But you never know what will happen in the future.”

Doctors harvest the cells once the umbilical cord is clamped and cut, using a “collection kit” supplied by one of the two companies. The blood is then packaged in a special shipping material provided in the kit.

Company officials then ship the package to their laboratory, where the stem cells are processed and tested for infectious diseases such as hepatitis, HIV and malaria.

After that, it is frozen in liquid nitrogen at minus 196 degrees Centigrade at a facility which official Kumar says is “earthquake- and bomb-proof”.

KV Subramaniam, chief executive of Reliance Life Sciences, says research using cord-blood cells is easier than from embryonic stem cells—derived from human embryos—or from adult bone marrow due to easier availability.

“Research has proven beyond doubt the usefulness of cord-blood stem cells as an alternative to traditional bone-marrow transplantation. As research gets deeper, it is expected to yield many more benefits to the donors who decide to bank cord-blood stem cells,” he says.

“India is yet to carry out its first cord-blood stem-cell transplantation but is getting gearing up for [it]. Quite a few countries are betting big on stem-cell-based therapies,” says Subramaniam, who heads a team of 50 stem-cell scientists.

Dr Satish Totey, director of stem-cell research at Bangalore’s private Manipal hospital, however, says it is a challenge to extract enough blood cells from the samples brought in, as many are already infected.

“Of the 60ml or 150ml of blood you bring to the lab, you may be able to extract some 15% cells. [Whether that will be] enough in the future is the question,” he says.—AFP

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