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Public-private partnership must for stem cell research

A national cord blood stem cell bank hub and cell therapy centre are planned to be set up in Mumbai

WHILE THE world is eagerly waiting to invest in India in the field of stem cell research, the Government has made it clear that it does not want to rush into the therapeutic uses of the research because of ethical issues involved.

The Union Health and Family Minister, A. Ramadoss made it clear at an international symposium on `Stem Cells: Premises and Promises for Research and Therapeutics' held in Mumbai last week that India could not rush to put the research for therapeutic use until the guidelines on ethics were in place.

Future of medicine

Admitting that stem cell was the future of medicine and research would go on, but as far as getting into tie-ups with international financers was concerned, it would be done "at its own time." However, he assured that the draft guidelines on the issue — now available for comments — if adopted, would be finalised as national guidelines and made into a proper law within the six months.

"Public-private partnership is inevitable for sustainability due to the high costs involved in the stem cell research," explained Chander P. Puri, director of the Mumbai-based National Institute for Research in Reproductive Health under the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

Consider this: the budget on stem cell research of the U.K-based Medical Research Centre for 2003-04 was 50 million Pounds and India's budget on the sector (including that of private stakeholders) was just Rs 5 million. Now, Reliance Life Science — a leading private company — has announced that it would spend Rs 200 million on stem cell research! "With this kind of money required, the Government alone cannot do it. But of course, the partnerships have to be under proper memorandum of understanding to avoid any disputes over intellectual property rights," Dr. Puri went on to explain.

The Ministry of Health has just approved a grant of Rs 5 crore to upgrade its stem cell research centre at the Mumbai-based National Institute for Research in Reproductive Health under the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). The cost of maintenance of the research cell centres is quite high — about 10 per cent of the cost of the equipment.

The Health Ministry is working on a memorandum of understanding with California-based private Korean research company Histostem that wants to set up four umbilical cord blood banks in India as part of what it believes to be the largest umbilical cord blood banking in the world.

Clinical trials

Histostem claims to have initiated clinical trials for stem cell therapeutic applications in the areas of strokes, liver cirrhosis, diabetes, Buerger's disease, osteoporosis, spinal cord injuries, hypertension and avascular necrosis.

The company would be obliged to only conduct research while its application would be carried out at the leading institutes such as AIIMS and PGI, Chandigarh.

"We have already entered into an agreement with the Maharashtra Government to set up a national cord blood stem cell bank hub and cell therapy centre at Mumbai for which they have offered us land also.

But, the MoU is subject to the finalisation of the provisions of the national guidelines on ethics in stem cell research," said Mike Shen, chief executive officer of Histostem, Inc.

Histostem and Apollo Hospitals have also agreed to set up a Histostem Cell Therapy Centre for which the Apollo Hospital will provide the cord blood from the births happening there.

"It is convenient to work in India because of availability of human resources, umbilical cord cell units (due to large number of births) and low cost of research. Since the umbilical cord blood therapy is akin to bone marrow transplant, the work becomes easier as India has good facilities for that," Mr. Shen said.

The company believes that with an annual birth rate of 25 million together with the Government's desire to be one of the leading countries in biotechnology, its operations here would be an important part in the company's global vision. Mr. Shen claimed that Histostem had also been approached by the Breach Candy Hospital, and other leading pharmaceutical companies to set up research centres under collaborations.

Enormous market

The first private cord stem cell bank in India was set up in 2002, which was followed by another private biotechnology company at Bangalore and Chennai. Since the business community in India has come to believe that an enormous market exists for private stem cell banking, many more private banks will be set up in the times to come.

Aarti Dhar


in Delhi

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