Mallika’s tale was an eye-opener to the world of Indian medical science. The 27 year old had met with an accident and was suffering form a severe disability for over a year. On March 18, 2009, Mallika had undergone a brain stem cell transplant surgery at a hospital in Bengaluru. The surgery was successful and she was discharged on April 3, 2009. Experts said that prior to this incident, only China had attempted such forms of treatment. In a nutshell, the incident did highlight the scope of stem cell therapy in India.
**The progress so far**
Over the years, stem cell research has been crucial in the treatment of various diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, heart failure, Alzheimer’s disease and even diabetes.
According to Dr. S. Ramaswamy, Dean, inStem, Bengaluru, the LV Prasad eye Institute at Hyderabad is a pioneer in a area of stem cell research related to eye disorders, especially that of the cornea.
**Where does India stand?**
In a survey conducted by Ernst and Young, India was ranked third in the area of biotechnology. Biotechnology includes agricultural and stem cell research as well. Researchers believe that the ranks, so derived stated in the survey could be due to India’s progress in agricultural research. The ranks, according to them, do not imply that the India tops the charts in the field of stem cell research.
**Research publications by India**
Senior researchers state that the number of publications that India contributes in the area of stem cells is quite low in comparison to other nations like China or even South Korea.
“In terms of scientific publications in peer reviewed journals, this is not true. Nor is it true in terms of patents in biotechnology. The statement does not seem convincing considering the contribution to GDP. Then, again, this can be skewed by calling regular agriculture as biotechnology. In terms of funding for research and development this is not true. There are countries that do better than India – intuitively to me in the Asia Pacific region would be (not in any particular order), Japan, China, Australia, Singapore, South Korea,” said Dr. Ramaswamy, Dean, inStem, Bengaluru.
*The hurdles that hamper work**
Despite the research scenario having improved over the past 10 years, scenario has improved significantly, the number of people pursuing stem cell research in India is very small compared to most other countries, which have specialised stem cell research programmes.
**What could be the reasons behind the poor statistics?**
Firstly, researchers seem to be facing a lot of issues due to lack of the adequate funds. Over the past 10 years, the funds allocated for stem cell research has reduced drastically. According to Dr. Anuradha Vaidya, the Deputy Director of School of Biomedical Sciences, Pune, the Central Government said that despite the large sums of money being pumped into this field, the society is yet to benefit from their work. “The situation is quite different in countries like China where the Chinese government pools in large sums of money for research purposes,” she added.
Secondly, India is yet to provide stem cell products that could be useful to the public. It is for this reason that a large amount of funding has been denied to scientists. “ Product development in the areas of scientific research, it could take several years. Thus, it is not possible for the authorities to bind us by a short time-frame of two or three years” Anuradha explains.
**Product development and stem cell research – the time factor**
The product development process in the field of stem cell research does take several years. This is primarily due to the fact nothing concrete seems to have evolved with regards to several aspects of such thereapy. One of these aspects is the number of stem cells that are required for treatment.
Note: The art of storing stem cells: These cells are frozen and are preserved with the help of extenders, most often nitrogen. Theoretically, it should last till the end of eternity or till the liquid nitrogen lasts. This could also have an impact on the product development process
Another fact that could delay the product development process could be that the research revolves around the lives of western part of the world. “Indians have a different body constituency. So, the research need not necessarily yield favourable results among Indians,” explains Dr. Radhakrishnan, Head of the division, Laboratory Medicine and Molecular Diagnostics, Rajiv Gandhi Centre of Biotechnology in Thirvananthapuram.
**Suggestions as per the experts’ request**
Stem cell research should be treated at par with other types of medical research. It could be noted that the last anti-biotic was prepared over 20 years ago. Since then, nothing new has been introduced in for the benefit of the public. Similarly, instead of binding stem cell scientists to a time-frame of not more than three years, they should be granted an initial time frame of nine years so as to do justice to the research work.
A new strategy for funding could be implemented. Researchers should be granted funds for a minimum of nine years instead of three years. This should be irrespective of the stage of product’s development. By doing so, the researcher and the other authorities would be able to assess their progress in the work they have undertaken. The next allot of funds could be determined based upon the progress that they have made.
The work of the scientist could be monitored from time to time. An ideal assessment system could even include provisions for penalising the researcher for not meeting the terms and conditions that have been set.
Lastly, research publications could be made available in the local dialects as well. “It is important for the public to know more about the work we do. Unless and until we can pen our findings down in the lingua franca, our work will go unnoticed,” added Radhakrishan.
There are several factors – both external and internal that determine the state of stem cell research in India. Moreover, stem cell therapy is expensive. Thus, the questions of surrounding its feasibility as a cure to diseases still remain answered. Then again, unless there is more productive research, one would never know if the option could be accessible to all.