(Re)generate a new future
First Published : 02 Aug 2010 11:01:00 PM IST
It’s no longer the exclusive muse of sci-fi writers. Creating a live tissue/organ to replace or repair a damaged one has obsessed scientists world over since the 1990s. The consequences of this branch of medicine, called regenerative medicine, are unimaginable.
For starters, it means we wouldn’t need to hunt for organ donors (and hopefully end organ trafficking). A cell from our body can do the job of creating the organ and there’s no fear of rejection as it’s from our body. It can also cure degenerative and lifestyle diseases like Parkinson’s, osteoarthritis and acute heart attack. In fact, regenerative medicine would be a supplement to existing medical treatment.
However, exciting as it sounds, India has just begun to create live tissues. “If the US, Japan and the UK are given 10 or close to 10 on a scale of one-10, India would be somewhere around or less than five,” says Dr Samuel JK Abraham, director, Nichi-In Centre for Regenerative Medicine (NCRM), Chennai. “Going by the number of publications in peer review journals, even China is far ahead of us.
” Regenerative medicine uses stem cells to repair, rejuvenate or replace a damaged or dysfunctional organ/tissue. Stem cells are an integral part of this branch of medicine because of their ability to develop into any tissue or organ. There are three fields to regenerative medicine: medical devices and artificial organs, tissue engineering and biomaterials and cellular therapies.
Abroad, stem cells are being used to repair/replace the cornea. Clinical trials are on to find a stem cell treatment for spinal cord injuries and neuro-degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Though regenerative medicine is in its infancy in India, scientists are gung-ho about its growth. “India is in the race to be the forerunner in regenerative medicine research in Asia. The (Union) government is taking new measures to fund stem cell research. Stem cell task forces have been set up by the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Department of Biotechnology,” says Dr Pawan K Gupta, dean, Manipal Institute of Regenerative Medicine (MIRM), Bangalore. “The department of biotechnology (DBT) is also setting up centres of excellence for stem cell research.”
According to the DBT website, between July 2009 and March, the department has spent nearly Rs 6.32 crore on various stem cell researches. Despite the obvious advantages, stem cell research hit a roadblock when the US government stopped funding embryonic stem cell research in 2001. Only last year did President Barack Obama revoke the ban.
In India, clinical trials are being conducted to estimate safety, dosage and the therapeutic effect of mesenchymal stem cells (from bone marrow and umbilical cord) to treat conditions like osteoarthritis, cerebral stroke and acute heart attack, says Dr Gupta. Institutes like the LV Prasad Eye Institute, Hyderabad, and Reliance Life Sciences, Mumbai, are carrying out research in ocular, while NCRM carries out research in areas like cancer stem cells, corneal limbal stem cells and tissue engineering of cartilage.
The focus area is increasingly on the use of cord blood stem cells in regenerative medicine. These cells can be injected back in a person’s body without fear of rejection and also have unique characteristics. “We use mesenchymal cell-based therapies for degenerative and lifestyle disorders. Tissue engineered products for cartilage repair, wound healing and treatment of hypo-pigmented patches would become common methods of treatment,” says KV Subramaniam, president and CEO, Reliance Life Sciences.
The scope for stem cell research in India is good, says RS Verma, professor, department of biotechnology, IIT-Madras, but students need to be strong in their basics to delve into various areas of research.
“Students with a firm base in developmental and cell biology will have an added advantage in getting into regenerative medicine,” adds Dr Gupta. Regenerative medicine also offers scope for students of human biology, medical biotechnology, veterinary sciences (at PG level), MBBS, life sciences and pharmacy. Being an interdisciplinary field, regenerative medicine would require cell biologists, chemical engineers, biomedical engineers, mechanical engineers, medical doctors, clinicians, manufacturing professionals and professionals in other allied areas. “Each of these professionals would look into a specific aspect of regenerative medicine. A cell biologist will study the classification of stem cells, molecular biology of stem cell and embryology, while a chemical engineer would study biochemical reactions involved in stem cell cultivation, reactor engineering, stem cell physiology and mass transfer in stem cell cultivation. So, a student would have to decide his focus area and proceed accordingly,” explains Subramaniam.
“There is a need for students with strong theoretical and practical knowledge in areas like cell culture, tissue engineering, nano materials composition-synthesis and analysis, bio-reactors, statistics and translational research in animals. But, no single student can have an exposure in all of them. So, it is ideal that they have thorough knowledge in a few subjects,” adds Dr Abraham.
Institutes like NCRM, IIT-M and MIRM provide an opportunity for students to come up with new research ideas. “The emphasis is to build core expertise in the field (stem cell) from the postgraduate level. Students will be trained in research methodologies as a part of their curriculum. They will also gain exposure to research in premier institutes in India and abroad during their project work, thus giving them a broader perspective,” says Dr Gupta.
Kritika Dutta, who is pursuing her master’s in regenerative medicine at MIRM, says she is able to gain sufficient practical experience along with a detailed theoretical coaching on areas like stem cell, molecular biology and immunology. “There is no barrier and we can carry out as many experiments as possible,” she adds.
“We devise our own protocol, which means we carry out the experiments many times, before we get it right. e need to test on animal models to know if it works,” says Prasanna, a Phd student at IIT-Madras.
Though a master’s degree would provide job opportunities in pharmaceutical and biotech companies, many students like Dutta prefer to pursue postdoctoral programmes after their PG. “I want to do PhD in regenerative medicine especially in the line of tissue engineering. I can pursue it anywhere — India or abroad,” she says.
India has a lot of young talent. But there is a dearth of institutes that could provide clinically applicable cells for treatment and also allow students to train themselves to produce cells as per the good manufacturing practice protocols and standards.